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    How are growing areas removed from the alert?

    Hello, this is Julia Stewart and welcome back to PMA’s new audio series, “Ask Dr. Bob Whitaker.” We’re going to jump right in today. Bob, we have received a number of calls from members with questions regarding the process FDA is using to exclude tomato growing areas from investigation as the source of the Salmonella saintpaul outbreak so they can be excluded from the consumer alert. Why is this being done, how are these areas identified and are there any more areas that might be removed from the alert?

    Dr. Bob Whitaker:

    As you know, PMA, United Fresh and our tomato industry members have been working with FDA to help expedite the traceback, so that the region and perhaps supplier that is the source of this outbreak can be identified as quickly as possible. As I’ve mentioned in previous recordings, this traceback has likely been complicated by the fact that the traceback has overlapped the normal seasonal transition of tomato production as the weather warms in the southern areas and production begins to move northward. While a hindrance on one hand, this transition also presented opportunities, because it allowed areas to be ruled out if they were not in production when the illnesses began. As the industry, FDA and state officials have been able to produce documentation that these production areas were not harvesting red round, plum or Roma tomatoes during the initial onset period – or that region’s distribution to the marketplace did not match up to the illness distribution – they have been removed or “excluded” from the FDA consumer alert. So, so far 27 states and 19 counties in Florida plus 7 off-shore suppliers have been cleared to harvest and ship tomatoes. This has all been done to maximize the ability of consumers to eat fresh, healthy tomatoes and to minimize, to the extent possible, losses of farms and packers who were not involved with the outbreak.

    The last part of your question asked if there were any more areas that might be excluded from the alert that were not producing tomatoes at the time of the outbreak. As of this recording on June 13th, to our knowledge only one major tomato production area is currently under review by FDA, although there may be others. Momentum has been building to exclude northern Baja California in Mexico. Similar to other regions excluded from the alert, Baja was not harvesting tomatoes at the onset of the illnesses in April. PMA sent a letter to the FDA commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach yesterday supporting a review of the Baja situation. Others have also been working diligently to ensure the Baja supply of fresh tomatoes can be released as soon as possible. From comments made at FDA’s press briefing June 12th by FDA Associate Commissioner of Foods Dr. David Acheson we know that the FDA is working with the Mexican government and Baja state to review their harvest and shipping data to see if it can meet the exclusion criteria.

    While we impatiently wait for the traceback to run its course, helping regulatory officials as we can, we should pause and take a note that this mechanism by the FDA to exclude those regions not supplying tomatoes during the onset of the illness in April has permitted tomatoes in the unaffected areas to be harvested and shipped. As we move forward, we remain concerned for those who have been made ill during this outbreak, and simultaneously we hope to learn from the traceback investigation about what we can do to improve the safety of tomatoes in the future and to begin the task of rebuilding consumer confidence in our products.

    Julia:

    Before we sign off, I want to make sure that our members know about PMA’s staff experts in food safety and crisis communications, who are available for your questions and to respond to your concerns should you be involved in this or any other food safety situations. If you have not yet taken advantage of the expertise of PMA staff, I encourage you to do so. On food safety and science issues, please contact Bob, or Kathy Means. For assistance in crisis communications, please contact me or Lorna Christie. Thanks for listening. We’ll see you next time!

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