The tomato scare may be over, but it has taken a toll, costing the industry an estimated $100 million US and left millions of people with a new wariness about the safety of everyday foods.
An Associated Press-Ipsos poll finds that nearly half of U.S. consumers have changed their eating and buying habits in the past six months because they're afraid they could get sick by eating contaminated food. They also overwhelmingly support setting up a better system to trace produce in an outbreak back to the source, the poll found.
Virginia's East Coast Brokers, one of the largest tomato growers in the country, has been hammered by slumping demand and falling prices, although Virginia tomatoes were cleared early on, said sales manager Batista Madonia III.
He said he's frustrated by the government's inability to find the root cause of the outbreak despite a nearly two-month investigation.
The salmonella outbreak has sickened more than 1,200 people, including four Canadians since the first cases were seen in April.
"I guarantee in that time frame, more than 1,000 people were injured slipping on a banana peel," said Madonia.
Cause of outbreak still unknown
Although federal officials lifted the tomato warning Thursday, the cause of the outbreak remains unknown. Hot peppers are under suspicion, and tomatoes have not been cleared everywhere.
While the poll found that three in four people remain confident about the overall safety of food, 46 per cent 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.
Eighty-six per cent in the poll said produce should be labelled so 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.
The poll found that 80 per cent of Americans said they would support new federal standards for fresh produce. Meat and poultry have long been subject to enforceable federal safeguards, but fruits and vegetables are not, although produce increasingly is being implicated in outbreaks.
The high level of uneasiness should not be taken lightly, said Michael R. Taylor, a former senior federal food safety official who now teaches at George Washington University.
"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," said Taylor.