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Diverted tomatoes pose risk

A significant health threat is being posed by an underground market in which as many as 125 tons of processing tomatoes from the central San Joaquin Valley daily are being diverted for sale as fresh tomatoes in Southern California and Mexico.

Most of the tomatoes are hastily picked and packed into used boxes in the fields, usually by crews who do not have access to portable toilets or any means of washing the fruit, according to the Fresno Bee.

Tomato industry leaders say the diversion of the tomatoes skirts numerous restrictions on inspection and leaves them vulnerable for blame in case of an outbreak of a food-borne illness.

There have been at least eight operations raided by agricultural inspectors in Fresno, San Joaquin and Stanislaus counties this year. Steve Lyle, a spokesman for the California Department of Food and Agriculture, said at least seven citations have been issued for alleged noncompliance with the department’s standards on packing and shipping of tomatoes.

Growers and shippers of California’s Roma tomatoes, a popular retail variety, are talking with representatives of the California Department of Food and Agriculture about forming a new marketing order to tighten standards on packing fresh tomatoes, make it easier to trace tomatoes back to the farm and increase surveillance to thwart the underground operations.