In a comment on my post about the FDA's new target in the salmonella investigation, Rebecca T. hopes that "US tomato farmers get together and sue the FDA for lost sales." I haven't seen any report of lawsuits yet, but something is stirring in Congress.
Michael Doyle of McClatchy Newspapers reports that four lawmakers from Florida — the state that produces most of the domestic out-of-season fresh tomatoes — have introduced legislation that will compensate tomato growers for their losses. I think that it's unlikely to get very far, but you never know during an election year. (If only those farmers were investment bankers or hedge fund managers on Wall Street, they wouldn't even need to go through the messiness of Congressional legislation, but instead could get a bailout directly from the treasury.)
Another target for the tomato growers could be some of their corporate customers. The Associated Press reported Friday that lobbyists for the food industry worked hard in 2003 and 2004 (with the help of the White House) to kill proposed rules to improve tracking of fresh produce. The AP reviewed White House meeting logs and found that business groups like Kraft Foods, the Cocoa Merchants' Association of America, the World Shipping Council, and the Food Marketing Institute met with White House officials at least 10 times during the period when the tracking rules were under consideration at the FDA. The groups complained that the FDA was reaching beyond the authority that Congress had legislated, that more tracking information would not necessarily create a better result, and that the program would be too costly.
Yet another potential target, albeit an ironic one, would be those restaurants that insist on using fresh tomatoes out of season — the ones that require that their products get a slice of fresh tomato every day of the year — and consumers who buy fresh tomatoes out of season. But pursuing legal action against your current customers is probably not the best business strategy.
Two subcommittees in the House will be giving critics of the current food safety system and of FDA's handling of the salmonella outbreak hearings next week. Rep. Dennis Cardoza's (D-Calif.) horticulture and organic agriculture subcommittee will "review legal and technological capacity for full traceability in fresh produce" on Wednesday. An audio and video feed will be available from the Committee on Agriculture's website. An article from the Associated Press explains some of the current thinking in industry, government and academia about produce tracking. On Thursday, the House Energy and Commerce Committee's oversight and investigations subcommittee will hold a hearing called "The Recent Salmonella Outbreak: Lessons Learned and Consequences to Industry and Public Health." Live audio or video feeds will be available from the Energy and Commerce Committee website .
It is certainly important to have a safe food system. But I worry that regulators, industry, and lawmakers will get carried away and do damage to sectors of the food system that are not a real danger, all to protect the seemingly God-given right of every American to have a slice of fresh tomato on their Big Mac or Whopper (even if the tomato is so tasteless as to be a textural element only). Overly draconian rules could make it even more difficult for small farms to sell to local grocery stores. Or force farms to become sterile zones, where the only living creatures are the crops of interest. Or require that an even crazier National Animal ID system will be created, thus wiping out small producers.
As food-safety fervor grips Washington, state capitals, and the boardrooms of food corporations, SOLE food enthusiasts will need to watch carefully what comes out of the various sausage machines under the guise of food-safety plans.