Produce industry directs outreach in tomato scare

NEW YORK: The tomato industry concentrated its outreach efforts on buyers to bolster the message that some tomatoes are safe to eat, while the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) try to identify the variety or region of tomatoes that triggered the salmonella outbreak in recent weeks.

NEW YORK: The tomato industry concentrated its outreach efforts on buyers to bolster the message that some tomatoes are safe to eat, while the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) try to identify the variety or region of tomatoes that triggered the salmonella outbreak in recent weeks.

"Everyone realizes that public health has to be in a good place," said Julia Stewart, PR director for the Produce Marketing Association (PMA), one of the groups behind the industry's united effort. "While public health goes first, there's a whole industry at stake. We have to help find that balance... It's incredibly delicate. We risk being perceived as inconsiderate of public health."

Early communications focused on keeping the industry - tomato farmers, buyers, and others - informed and supplying information to the FDA to aid the investigation, Stewart added.

The FDA issued a warning June 7 not to eat raw red plum, red Roma, and red round tomatoes, due to possible contamination by salmonella. At press time, the agency had reported 167 cases of salmonella since mid-April, including 23 hospitalizations. The FDA's warning presented communication challenges, because it did not apply to certain types of tomatoes - cherry and grape varieties and those sold with the vine attached - as well as tomatoes grown in some states.

Seven trade organizations, including PMA, sent out a unified letter to produce buyers on June 12 to encourage them to place orders for cleared tomatoes.

The trade organizations - Alliance for Food and Farming, California Tomato Farmers, Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association, Florida Tomato Committee, PMA, United Fresh Produce Association, and Western Growers Association - will also provide follow-up calls to the buyers.

When retailers and restaurants began to remove all tomato varieties, the focus shifted to providing awareness about what tomato varieties and regions were cleared by the FDA. "It's starting to morph," Stewart noted.

McDonald's, for one, voluntarily pulled sliced tomatoes, but not grape tomatoes, from its menus on June 6, and focused its communications efforts on its franchises, employees, and customers.

"Other people look to us be-cause we are the largest," said Danya Proud, senior manager of US media relations for the fast-food chain. "There's been a dialogue since the FDA put out the recommendation."

Stewart said the letter represents the traditional first step for crisis communications in produce recalls, but the group was just beginning to consider consumer outreach.

"We're just starting to talk about consumer outreach, but, even yesterday, there were way more questions than answers," she said.

Fleishman-Hillard represents Desert Glory,* a San Antonio-based tomato grower, and it has reached out to online media and bloggers on the grower's behalf with immediate news, as well as provided sound bytes and video footage to other outlets.

"It's a stepped process," said Janet Greenlee, GM of Fleishman's Austin, Texas, office. "It's such a complex, serious endeavor... There is illness, and we don't want to take that lightly."

A major part of Fleishman's effort involved supplying correct information to media and trade groups about what varieties and regions were cleared by the FDA, because the information changed every day, Greenlee noted.

"Our response needs to be metered, not a clutter," she added.

*CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Fleishman represents PMA and United Fresh Produce Association in addition to Desert Glory. The agency has spoken with the associations in regards to the situation but does not represent them. We regret the error.

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