Every day in the United States over one billion servings of U.S.-grown produce is consumed without anyone getting sick. When someone does get sick, it’s so rare that it makes big news — that fruit and vegetable growers could do without.

In May and June of 2008 hysteria spread across the country because hundreds of people got sick. Nine of every 10 people who reported this e. coli-caused illness had one thing in common — they all ate tomatoes.

Knowing little about tomato production practices, not to mention demographics of marketing tomatoes, government agencies were quick to point the finger at tomatoes. Nine out of every 10 Americans eat tomatoes daily and don’t get sick, but the e-coli hysteria had to have a cause and tomatoes was it in 2008.

Turns out peppers, not tomatoes, were the cause of the e-coli outbreak. The speak-first, document later attitude cost South Carolina and Georgia tomato growers millions of dollars and left some going into the 2009 season skeptical that markets will return for their produce.

Reggie Brown, executive vice-president of the Florida Tomato Commission, says no tomato was ever tested that contained e. coli. Growers in South Carolina and Georgia were in the midst of their growing season and took the brunt of the economical hit. Florida growers were also hurt, but were at the end of their growing cycle, Brown notes.

“For about a month the media frenzy was hysterical. Avoiding health-related issues is the best way to avoid this type media frenzy,” Brown says.

He notes that individual growers and grower associations must be more diligent in presenting their case for healthy, disease-free products in order to avoid negative publicity situations that ultimately hurt growers.

“Regulatory agencies have the moral high ground when food-borne disease problems occur. Unfortunately, they don’t know much about fruit and vegetable production. In the case of the tomato outbreak, once we saw the geographic dispersal of the outbreak, it was clear tomatoes were not the cause,” Brown says.

When outbreaks occur in New Mexico and then in Connecticut, there is virtually no possibility that sickness was caused by tomatoes grown in the Southwest, because at that time of year, tomatoes aren’t marketed in the Northeast, Brown notes.

Doing a better job of helping agencies like the Center for Disease Control and the Food and Drug Administration understand the ins and outs of vegetable production is a good first step in avoiding the kind of frenzy we saw last summer with tomatoes, Brown contends.

He adds that being in the middle of a media onslaught, being interviewed by people like Lou Dobbs, than waiting to see their interpretation of what you said, is not a good place to formulate a crisis management plan.

“A big part of any crisis management plan is to demonstrate why your product IS safe. However, in general, the national media last summer didn’t want to know what a good job our growers had done for many years to produce safe tomatoes. Instead, they wanted to know where these ‘killer tomatoes’ were coming from.

“Like a bad gift that keeps on giving, the summer 2008 hysteria over tomatoes being the cause of the e. coli outbreak didn’t end when all agencies involved agreed that tomatoes were not the cause of the outbreak.

“Once you make news — good or bad — it stays on the Internet forever. Right now, you can google tomato safety and you will get dozens, if not hundreds, of hits on the effects of e. coli contamination of tomatoes in the summer of 2008 in the United States,” Brown says.

Tom Stenzil, president of United Fresh Produce Association, says “We had no training or emergency plan in place to handle either government agency questions or media questions when the tomato crisis hit last summer. Unfortunately, the government had no central control, making for a really bad situation for vegetable growers.”

Stenzil says his organization promotes establishment of a central regulatory agency much like the Federal Aeronautic Agency that investigates plane crashes. Such an agency would place one person in control of operations and would make a wait-and-see policy work, so that the real cause of food-borne disease outbreaks could be determined before hysteria hits.

Produce will always be highly susceptible to disease outbreaks — no matter how safe production is because most these products are eaten raw. By comparison, it is well documented that at least two percent of our beef supply is contaminated with e.coli. However, all of these products can be cooked, eliminating the risk to humans.

“We know the produce industry. We know how produce is grown and marketed, and we could provide valuable information to regulatory agencies. These agencies in the summer of 2008 weren’t quick to ask for our help. Once we all worked together, we figured out that tomatoes weren’t the cause of this outbreak, but that was too late to help tomato growers who couldn’t sell their crop at the height of their marketing season,” Stenzil says.

“The entire produce industry is striving to establish better trace-back systems that will make information immediately available to food-borne disease monitoring agencies and to the media. If these systems are in place, well-documented for accuracy and easily accessible, growers will have a good source of insulation from the type problems they faced trying to sell tomatoes in the midst of a full blown crisis, he adds.

Don’t expect much help from the U.S. Congress — at least in the short-term. Though several bills, including two by Illinois Democratic Senator Richard Durbin, have been submitted, none are likely to get much attention at least not in the first session of Congress.

Food safety is high in importance to the U.S. Congress, but bailout programs and other economic issues has put a number of potential bills that will help produce growers on the back burner, Stenzil contends.

The outlook for produce is good for 2009, as Americans continue to seek healthier, less fattening food sources. For products like tomatoes and spinach — which was affected by a food-borne disease outbreak in 2006 — the market has yet to return to 100 percent of pre-publicity levels.

Tomatoes, says Brown, are back to 90-95 percent of the pre-media hysteria days, even though tomatoes have been proven to be not the cause of the outbreak. The loss of market share has made an impact on growers and they are more aware of the need to promote the safety assets of their crop.

“We cannot continue to chase zero. Just as there is some risk to living, there is some risk to eating produce. We have to do a better job of letting everyone know the level of safety they have when eating U.S. grown produce,” Brown concludes.

e-mail: rroberson@farmpress.com