California Tomato Farmers Formed
The Tomato Magazine
By Lisa Lieberman
After the E. coli epidemic in spinach last year killed a few people and
sickened hundreds of others, food safety is on everyones minds.
With that background, a group of California tomato farmers
subsequently banded together to form a new group, California Tomato Farmers.
Its primary focus, at least initially, is on food safety.
Eight Large Family-owned Companies
The group is comprised of eight of the largest family-owned tomato companies
in California: Ace Tomato Co. Inc., The DiMare Company, Gargiulo, Inc.,
HS Packing/JTL Produce, Live Oak Farms, San Joaquin Tomato Growers, Oceanside
Produce/Harry Sing and Sons and Pacific Triple E/Tripe E. Produce. These
growers account for nine out of every 10 fresh tomatoes grown in California,
which says Ed Beckman, president of the new cooperative, is enough volume
to fi ll the needs of every retail and foodservice company in North America
during the California growing season.
Beckman, former president of the California Tomato Commission, says the
new cooperative will not focus on generic advertising, but will differentiate
itself from all other tomato growers based on food safety standards. Over
time, the group will also focus on exports and the foodservice industry
All of our members have common ideals, and were pretty much venturing
into unchartered territory, Beckman acknowledges. If youre
a grower today, you are so much under the microscope ¯ not
just from the federal government, but from customers, the media and consumer
groups. Everyone is focusing on food safety. As emotional as they are
right now, food safety issues are driving a number of economic forces.
This is why its so important to take a leadership position now.
Lack of Auditing Standards
While the USDA has traditionally audited agricultural commodity groups
for quality standards, there have not been the same mandatory audits for
food safety. Nonetheless, over the past several years, retailers have
become increasingly demanding that their growers have their own independent
third-party food safety audits. The problem with this is that all third-party
auditors are different; there has been no set standard that has been applied
to the fresh tomato industry.
The advantage of the cooperatives new Fresh Standard
is that it is a comprehensive set of good agricultural practices that
will apply to all of its members, Beckman points out. Included are such
issues as food safety, pesticide use and fair treatment of farm and packinghouse
The tomato cooperative has involved a number of governmental agencies
and industry experts to help develop these standards, he says. Included
are the USDA, CDFA, integrated pest management scientists, the National
Good Agricultural Practices out of University of Cornell and people from
the Diversifi ed Restaurants Systems.
Right now, from a buyer perspective, theres no commonality
among third-party audits. With our system, all of our growers are going
to be audited to the same high standards. Theres not going to be
any question of what kind of standard this or that grower is under,
All of the fresh standard audits will be contracted through USDA, which
should give the audits that much more credibility, Beckman says.
The USDA has been doing good agricultural practice audits for years,
but based on its criteria. Now, it will be doing audits using our standards,
which are even higher, Beckman notes.
Need to Pass on Costs
Ultimately, these more rigorous audits are going to cost the growers more
money. At some point, this means the cost is going to have to be passed
down to the buyer, he explains. Dole, which just raised its prices by
22 cents a box due to food safety costs, is a good example, Beckman says.
Sure, there are going to be those buyers who want to save 25 or
50 cents a box, but to most buyers these costs arent the same kind
of issues they used to be, especially if you look at the hundreds of millions
of dollars some companies have had to pay in settlements because of food
safety incidents, Beckman says.
While most food safety programs and audits have, up until now, focused
on the grower and packers operations, the cooperative--sometime
within the next couple of years ¯ is also planning on
creating a food safety document. It would include the entire supply chain,
from farm to fork, Beckman explains.
That might sound like a goal thats too lofty, but our hope
is to create a synergy between buyers and suppliers, Beckman stresses.
At the foodservice level, food safety and product development are
going to become increasingly important, Beckman says. This will be true
both domestically and internationally. This year, the cooperative is unleashing
a $1 million export program focusing on Mexico, Japan and Canada. The
cooperative has hired the Culinary Edge out of San Francisco to help develop
tomato recipes for the Japanese market, a small, but very lucrative, market
for California growers.
Were giving them the creative license to find new solutions
for the Japanese market because what we fi nd is that while the Japanese
might like the product, they may not fully understand all of its uses,
Beckman points out.
The idea, though, is to both re-invent menus and work with operators to
show them how new menu items could help them increase profi ts, Beckman
In addition to food safety and exports, the cooperative will also be working
to increase economies of scale for its growers.
Were not like a single grower thats only got 300 acres.
We have 31 million cartons of tomatoes on 35,000 acres, so there are economies
of scale we can take advantage of, Beckman stresses.
In the Midwest, cooperatives are huge in the wheat, soybean and
corn commodity groups. I dont think co-ops in California have been
developed to where they have been in some of these other areas of the
© 2007 Columbia
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