July 1, 2007/Lab Business Week-- The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will begin a multi-year Tomato Safety Initiative 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," said Robert Brackett, Ph.D., director of FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. "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, part of FDA's Produce Safety Action Plan, is a collaborative effort between FDA and state health and agriculture departments in Florida and Virginia. Several universities and members of the produce industry also are part of the effort. It will begin during this year's growing season for Virginia in the summer and for Florida in the fall.

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 will include identifying practices or conditions that potentially lead to product contamination, which will allow FDA to continue to improve its guidance and policy on tomato safety. The initiative will evaluate the need for additional produce safety research, education and outreach.

Other components of the initiative include:
* continuing outreach with the industry at all points in the supply chain,
* facilitating and promoting research on tomato safety,
* communicating early and often in the event of an outbreak, and
* continuing to build and strengthen collaborative relationships with federal, state and local public health officials in disease prevention, detection, and outbreak response.

FDA investigators in coordination with their respective state counterparts will visit tomato farms and packing facilities in Florida and Virginia to assess food safety practices and use of Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) and Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs). During their visits, officials will also evaluate a variety of environmental factors including irrigation water, wells, procedures for mixing chemicals, drought and flooding events, and animal proximity to growing fields.

The Tomato Safety Initiative complements the Leafy Greens Initiative launched in 2006.

From the July 2, 2007, Prepared Foods e-Flash