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Tomato growers: Salmonella scare damages industry

RICHMOND, Va. - The 6,000 acres of tomatoes grown on Virginia's sea-swept Eastern Shore were never implicated in the national salmonella outbreak - they were still on the vine weeks after people starting getting sick.

Still, that hasn't made much difference to tomato broker Batista Madonia III, who has seen sales and prices plummet in the wake of a salmonella outbreak that sickened people in 42 states and left the nation's tomato industry feeling woozy as well.

Since the government announced it was investigating whether tomatoes caused the outbreak that began in April, the nation's tomato industry estimates it has lost more than $100 million. Health investigators have not able to find tomatoes that contained the salmonella strain that sickened 1,220 people, and the government on Thursday lifted its salmonella warning involving tomatoes.

The move hasn't brightened the outlook of the $1.3 billion industry, and the stigma and uncertainty of the salmonella's origin are likely to add to its losses.

'The damage has been done. I don't think we'll ever get over it,' said Madonia, sales manager for East Coast Brokers & Packers, which grows 4,000 acres on the Eastern Shore.

At height of summer, when tomatoes are a staple of the picnic season, growers have seen their plump red produce pulled from fast-food menus and passed over by shoppers.

'Summer is our biggest window of opportunity. If we miss this season, we can't get it back,' said Tom Deardorff, a farmer in California, which grows the most tomatoes in the U.S. 'It's hard to force people to eat tomatoes at Christmastime.'

Deardorff, a Ventura County farmer who grows 600 acres of beefsteak and Roma tomatoes, worries it could take a year or more for consumers to regain their appetite for tomatoes.

An Associated Press-Ipsos poll conducted July 10-14 found that while three in four people remain confident about the overall safety of food, 46 percent said they were worried they might get sick from eating tainted products.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration officials believe that consumers may now enjoy all types of fresh tomatoes available without worrying about salmonella Saintpaul, the outbreak strain.

The elderly and people with weak immune systems - those most vulnerable to food-borne illnesses - should avoid fresh jalapenos and serranos, and any dishes that may contain them such as fresh salsa, federal health officials have advised.

Growers in Florida and Georgia, the No. 2 and 3 tomato-producing states, respectively, agreed the damage may be too much to overcome. The harvest is winding down or has ended in those states, and growers are deciding how many acres to devote to tomatoes during the fall.

'We're glad for Virginia, for North Carolina growers,' said Charles Hall of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers' Association. 'But it's not going to help Georgia growers.'

For states where tomatoes will be harvested in the weeks to come, the challenge will be overcoming consumer suspicion of the industry.

Kathy Means, spokeswoman for the Produce Marketing Association, said the industry will have to win back consumer confidence through lower pricing and pitching the health benefits of fresh tomatoes.