LAKELAND, Fla. -- Publix Super Markets here has suspended its offering of Ag-Mart Produce's Santa Sweets grape tomatoes and Ugly Ripes' heirloom variety as a result of allegations that the supplier misused pesticides.
"There are some issues that Ag-Mart is addressing and we're looking into those," said Publix spokeswoman Maria Brous. "This is a temporary disruption in service. Ag-Mart is trying to rectify the situation, and when they do, we'll continue to do business with them."
Publix stopped offering Ag-Mart brands of tomatoes about three weeks ago.
Last week, the Orlando (Fla.) Sentinel reported that Whole Foods Market stores and Costco Wholesale have also pulled Ag-Mart's grape tomatoes. Neither retailer returned SN's phone calls.
"Only Publix and a few small Florida-based retailers" have stopped offering Ag-Mart's tomatoes, said David Sheon, spokesman for Ag-Mart.
Sheon declined to comment specifically about reports of Costco and Whole Foods pulling the tomatoes. Food retailers in all 50 states and Canada sell Ag-Mart's tomatoes, Sheon said.
Charles H. Bronson, Florida's commissioner of agriculture and consumer service, is taking legal action and seeking $111,200 in fines against the Plant City, Fla.-based producer for numerous violations of state and federal pesticide laws.
"The company has 21 days [after the allegation is made] to either contest it or pay the fine," explained Terence McElroy, spokesman for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
Ag-Mart filed an appeal challenging the alleged violations Oct. 14. Although no illegal pesticide residues were identified on food crops in question, Bronson has filed complaints alleging 88 separate counts of pesticide violations on two separate farms in the state, according to the department.
The most serious violations, according to the department, involve "pre-harvest intervals" and "restricted entry intervals."
Pesticide labels indicate how soon after a pesticide application a crop can be harvested and the amount of time that must elapse before it's safe for workers to enter the field. The department alleges that despite a seven-day waiting period indicated on the label, Ag-Mart harvested crops anywhere from one to five days after pesticide applications.
"In the history of the company, every single inspection of produce has found it to be completely safe," Sheon said. "The [Florida Department of Agriculture] found no worker safety concerns and that no workers were put at risk."
According to a statement from Ag-Mart, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sets the pre-harvest re-entry time intervals for every acre of land sprayed. However, farms are divided into "fields," each consisting of numerous acres.
"The EPA says we can't re-enter an acre within a certain number of days after spraying," said Don Long, president, Ag-Mart, in a statement. "We always honor that requirement. The workers that re-entered the field blocks could have been two miles away from where spraying had occurred in fewer days than the pre-harvest re-entry interval allows for a particular acre. But the re-entry laws are measured in terms of a particular acre, not a field, nor a field block. We've followed the law here."
The tomato producer ran an advertorial in the Lakeland Ledger asking its customers to "take a careful look at all the facts, and be patient as the investigative process continues," Sheon said. Publix is based in Lakeland.
The case will not be heard in the courts but through the regulatory process with the Florida Division of Administrative Hearings, according to McElroy.
Florida's agriculture department launched its investigation of Ag-Mart in March in conjunction with an investigation by the Collier County Health Department and the Florida Department of Health into the cause of three cases of birth defects in children born to mothers who worked for Ag-Mart. The departments were not able to identify any instances of illness resulting directly from pesticide use.