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California Tomato Farmers Formed

The Tomato Magazine
June 2007

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 everyone’s 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 as well.

All of our members have common ideals, and we’re pretty much venturing into unchartered territory,” Beckman acknowledges. “If you’re 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 it’s 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 cooperative’s 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 workers.

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, there’s no commonality among third-party audits. With our system, all of our growers are going to be audited to the same high standards. There’s not going to be any question of what kind of standard this or that grower is under,” Beckman said.

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 aren’t 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 that’s 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.

“We’re 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 notes.

In addition to food safety and exports, the cooperative will also be working to increase economies of scale for its growers.

“We’re not like a single grower that’s 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 don’t think co-ops in California have been developed to where they have been in some of these other areas of the country.”

© 2007 Columbia Publishing

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