Friday, August 22, 2008

Tomato Scare Ending, But Fears Remain

Perhaps, the tomato scare has over, but it has taken a toll, it has cost the industry an estimated $100 million and left millions of people with a new wariness about the safety of everyday foods.

Half of consumers have changed their eating and buying habits in the past six months because those people are afraid they could get sick by eating contaminated food. Consumers also overwhelmingly support setting up a better system to trace produce in an outbreak back to the source, the poll found. The people who feel that way include the growers.

One of the largest tomato growers in the U.S, Virginia's East Coast Brokers, has been hammered by falling prices and slumping demand, although Virginia tomatoes were cleared early on, said sales manager Batista Madonia III. He said he has frustrated by the government's inability to find the root cause of the outbreak despite a nearly two-month long investigation.

The salmonella outbreak has sickened more than 1,200 people in 42 states since the first cases were seen in April. Madonia said, "I guarantee in that time frame, more than 1,000 people were injured slipping on a banana peel." In addition, the cause of the outbreak remains unknown. Hot peppers are under suspicion, and tomatoes have not been cleared everywhere.

According to the result of poll, three in four people remain confident about the overall safety of food, 46 percent said they were worried they might get sick from eating contaminated products. The same percentage said that because of safety warnings, they have avoided items they normally would have purchased.

According to Christy Taylor, a first-grade teacher from Sacramento, Calif., she has all but given up on supermarket produce and is buying most of her fresh vegetables and fruits at the local farmers' market instead. She (30), the mother of 2-year-old twin girls, said, "I see the same farmers every single week." Moreover, she added, "You meet the people and you see where the (produce) is coming from." She said that her twins love tomatoes and chomp on them as if they were apples. However, until the mystery of the tainted food is solved

The poll found that 80 percent of Americans concerned produce should be labeled. Therefore, it can be tracked through layers of processors, packers and shippers, all the way back to the farm. The lack of such a system frustrated disease detectives working on the salmonella outbreak. However, the industry is divided over mandatory tracing technology, and Congress is running out of time to act on any major food safety changes before the election. Moreover, they would support new federal standards for fresh produce. Poultry and meat have long been subject to enforceable federal safeguards. However, vegetables and fruits are not, although produce increasingly is being implicated in outbreaks.

According to Michael R. Taylor, a former senior federal food safety official who now teaches at George Washington University, the high level of uneasiness should not be taken lightly. He said, "When you have almost half the population avoiding certain foods because of safety concerns, that's very significant from the standpoint of economic impact for the people selling the food, and from the standpoint of peace of mind for consumers." In addition to the salmonella outbreak, this year has seen the largest ground beef recall in history, raising consumer concerns reflected in the poll.

The survey found gender, economic and racial gaps on attitudes about food safety. Moreover, women, who do most of the shopping, were more concerned than men were. For example, 39 percent of men said they were "very confident" that the food they buy is safe. Ironically, only 23 percent of women said they felt that way. However, men and women agreed on the need for better federal oversight.

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