By Dan Shapley
The Food and Drug Administration announced the launch of a multi-year Tomato Safety Initiative
Tuesday afternoon. The goal is to reduce the incidence of tomato-related foodborne illness in the United States. Produce is an important part of a healthy diet and FDA wants to improve its safety by better understanding the causes of foodborne illness and by promoting more effective methods of safe food production, delivery, and preparation, Robert Brackett, director of FDA''s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, said in a statement sent to the press. This initiative is part of a strategy to reduce foodborne illness by focusing food safety assessments on specific products, practices, and growing areas that have been found to be problematic in the past. The initiative will work with two states -- Virginia beginning this summer, and Florida beginning in the fall -- as well as several universities. During the past decade, the consumption of fresh and fresh-cut tomatoes has been linked to 12 different outbreaks of foodborne illness in the United States. Those outbreaks include 1,840 confirmed cases of illness. The majority of these outbreaks have been traced to products from Florida and the eastern shore of Virginia; however, tomato-associated outbreaks also have been traced to tomatoes from California, Georgia, Ohio, and South Carolina. The effort, according to the FDA, will include identifying practices or conditions that potentially lead to product contamination. The goal is to improve FDA guidance and policy on tomato safety. The initiative will evaluate the need for additional produce safety research, education, and outreach. State and federal agents will inspect tomato farms and packing facilities in the two states to assess food safety practices and evaluate a variety of environmental factors including irrigation water, wells, procedures for mixing chemicals, drought and flooding events, and animal proximity to growing fields.