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Local growers worried tomato recall could hurt business

By Mark Wineka
Salisbury Post
As grocery stores and restaurants remove tomatoes from their produce bins and menus, local growers say a nationwide consumer alert about a salmonellosis outbreak has the potential to hurt them.
But the local growers emphasize that N.C. tomatoes, which haven’t been picked yet, will be safe and plentiful within the next week or two.
“Hopefully they’ll (the U.S. Food and Drug Administration) get to the bottom of this and we can put it behind us,” said Doug Patterson, who operates Patterson Farms in Rowan County.
“We shouldn’t be implicated or put in with this outbreak. We’re guilty by association.”
The FDA has linked a 17-state salmonella outbreak to red plum, red Roma and round red tomatoes. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that since mid-April, 167 people have been affected by salmonellosis, and 23 hospitalizations have occurred.
The Associated Press has reported that a death in Texas may be related to a man being sickened by the salmonella bacteria after eating pico de gallo, a tomato-based condiment, at a Mexican restaurant.
The FDA is trying to find the source of the outbreak. It initially warned consumers in Texas and New Mexico June 3, but expanded that warning nationwide Monday.
Salmonella is a bacteria living in the intestinal tracts of humans and other animals, and the bacteria are usually transmitted to humans by eating foods contaminated with animal feces.
Artie Watson, one of the owners of Wetmore Farms in Woodleaf, said the well-publicized salmonellosis outbreak “won’t be a positive thing for a while,” even though North Carolina is among 19 states whose tomatoes have not been associated with the outbreak. (See list in related story.)
At Wetmore Farms, 15 acres of tomatoes are about a week to 10 days away from being ready to pick.
Patterson has 300 acres of tomatoes that represent 80 percent of the farm’s income. His tomatoes are mostly sold in North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia, but his overall market extends from Puerto Rico to Canada.
Workers will begin picking the Patterson tomatoes in about two weeks.
“When ‘Good Morning America’ comes out and says don’t eat tomatoes, that hurts everybody,” Patterson said.
He added that when people see restaurants such as McDonald’s or Subway not putting tomato slices on their sandwiches, it also sends a signal to these consumers that they shouldn’t be buying them in grocery stores, farmers markets or other retail outlets.
That shouldn’t happen, Patterson said. He added that his farm, for example, is GAP-certified by the state, meaning it follows good agricultural practices in making sure workers receive training and follow recommended hygiene practices.
The same kind of guilt by association hurt tomato growers in the past when the country had a salmonellosis scare with lettuce, Patterson said. When people quit eating salads for a time, it naturally hurt tomato sales.
Meanwhile, Salisbury-based grocer Food Lion took action Monday to take any suspect tomatoes out of the produce departments of its 1,300 stores in the mid-Atlantic and Southeast regions.
The company contacted its vendors and suppliers and put out a recall notice for the three varieties in question.
“Safety is of primary importance to us,” said Karen Peterson, corporate communications manager for Food Lion.
Any consumer who bought tomatoes that have since been recalled can bring them back to Food Lion stores for a full refund, she added.
Other grocery chains across the country also have pulled from their produce departments the three types of tomatoes identified by the FDA.
Peterson noted that federal authorities have said cherry tomatoes, grape tomatoes and tomatoes with the vine still attached are safe and not associated with the outbreak. The same goes for homegrown tomatoes.
The Patterson and Wetmore farms have been selling local greenhouse-grown tomatoes. Again, they are safe and not affected by the salmonella scare.
Darrell Blackwelder, horticulture agent for the Cooperative Extension Service in Rowan County, said he had received calls Tuesday from people just wondering if they could eat any tomatoes at all, even ones they have grown in their own gardens.
Blackwelder was holding a meeting at 7 p.m. Tuesday for Farmers Market vendors on safe food handling.
He also will conduct three separate sessions Thursday at Patterson Farms and, using a Spanish translator supplied by the Rowan-Salisbury Schools, go over the importance of cleanliness and food safety practices among the farm’s migrant workers, who will be picking the tomatoes.
Blackwelder said Patterson Farms relies on third-party audits of its food safety practices and that companies such as Wal-Mart and Food Lion will only buy produce from these kinds of certified growers.
“The Pattersons have been doing this for years ó and the other growers, too,” Blackwelder said. “Everybody gets the training.”
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263 or mwineka@salisburypost.com.

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