South Carolina Tomato Farmer Sues Feds Over Recall

A South Carolina family-owned tomato farm recently sued the United States Food and Drug Administration under the Federal Tort Claims Act  seeking to recoup damages it suffered from the 2008 nationwide tomato recall over fears of salmonella contamination.  Seaside Farm, Inc. of St. Helena Island filed suit in federal court in the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina.   The complaint alleges causes of action of negligence, violation of the takings clause, violations of the South Carolina Unfair Trade Practices Act, and defamation.  Seaside Farm, Inc. v. United States, C.A. No. 9:11-cv-1199-CWH (D.S.C. May 2011).

According to the complaint, Seaside Farm cooperated with and and assisted in all audits and inspections of its operation prior to the start of the tomato season in 2008 and passed all inspections.  Then, in June of 2008, “at the precise time when South Carolina tomatoes are coming to market, the FDA announced a national recall of all tomatoes in the U.S.” (See South Carolina news coverage of the 2008 recall here ).  The complaint goes on to say that the FDA “improperly assumed” that tomatoes were the source of the curent salmonella outbreak, though following the recall, the FDA ultimately conceded that tomatoes were not the source the salmonella contamination.  At that point, however, Seaside Farm says the damage was done.  It seeks compensation for loss of its property, in the form of its 2008 tomato crop, as well as other general and special damages.

The FDA Law Blog reports that though the FDA issued a nationwide warning in June of 2008 for consumers to refrain from eating tomatoes, later, certain types of peppers were identified as the likely culprit of the salmonella outbreak.  The FDA thus lifted its tomato ban, but not before significant damage was done.  There was significant fallout, with some predicting that litigation likely would most certainly ensue.   According to FDA Law Blog, statutory law directs the Government Accountability Office to submit a report to Congress that reviews “new or existing mechanisms available to compensate persons for general and specific recall-related costs when a recall is subsequently determined by the relevant agency to have been an error,” and that “considers models for farmer restitution implemented in other nations in cases of erroneous recalls.”  Such provisions may fall short of the expectations of small businesses like Seaside Farm, who took the brunt of the error.

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