In a recent consumer poll conducted by the Produce Marketing Association, 8% of respondents said they will never purchase tomatoes again. Almost 30% said they would wait a few weeks before buying tomatoes, and 20% said they would wait a few months.
It's hard to believe that those numbers will hold for long on one of the produce department's most popular categories. But as knee-jerk reactions go, it's hardly surprising to see consumers averse to tomatoes, after two months of news reports linking the fruit to a salmonella outbreak that has sickened more than 1,250 people.
Now it turns out that tomatoes may have been falsely accused. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration last week fully turned its attention to jalapenos, after discovering a contaminated, Mexican-grown pepper at a distributor in McAllen, Texas.
The produce industry has expressed growing frustration with the way this traceback investigation has gone, and rightfully so. It has dragged on for almost two months now, alarmed consumers and needlessly wrecked an entire season for tomato growers.
The FDA “really needs to understand the consequences of speculation,” Tom Stenzel, president and chief executive officer of the United Fresh Produce Association, told SN. “Public health always comes first, but they've got to understand that when they say ‘tomatoes might be the cause of this,’ they're shutting down the tomato industry across the country.”
It's tough to pin the blame entirely on the FDA. The underfunded agency lacks the resources to complete these sprawling national investigations quickly. And their traceback efforts have been slowed further by the produce industry's lack of standardization regarding record-keeping. Associations including United Fresh, the Produce Marketing Association and the Canadian Produce Marketing Association are hoping that their Produce Traceability Initiative will help eliminate that speed bump soon by establishing industrywide electronic record-keeping protocols.
In the meantime, the FDA and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention need to develop a better way to inform U.S. citizens about foodborne illness outbreaks. Their top priority, of course, is protecting those citizens. During an outbreak, the impact that their warnings have on growers and food retailers is at the bottom of their list of concerns.
But in this case, their broad, national warning may have hit the wrong target. And their constant stream of minor updates and press announcements managed to keep the story in the headlines and keep consumer concerns riding high for weeks. It doesn't matter if those concerns are misplaced; many consumers will continue to associate tomatoes with salmonella for months, if not years.
In the wake of this most recent outbreak, an Associated Press-Ipsos poll found that nearly half of all consumers have changed their eating habits because they're concerned about getting sick. When news about tainted food is aimed at some of the healthiest items in the supermarket, the FDA should be absolutely certain that those stories are on target.