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More customers picking Georgia Grown
Salmonella scare has consumers buying more local produce
Broadus Duncan shucks an ear of corn inside the produce department Thursday afternoon at J&J Food on Jesse Jewell Parkway. Many customers have taken to this so much the store has placed a receptacle can to catch the waste left behind.

The tomato scare may be over, but it has taken a toll.

The recent concerns expressed by the Food and Drug Administration that linked certain types of tomatoes with salmonella have cost the industry an estimated $100 million and left millions of people with a new wariness about the safety of everyday foods.

Though Georgia tomatoes never were involved, and the FDA later declared most tomatoes safe, the scare still sent sales and prices tumbling. Many unsold Georgia tomatoes were tossed away. Georgia Commissioner of Agriculture Tommy Irvin said Georgia tomatoes were not ready for market at the time of the outbreak.

"Our market was injured because people stopped buying tomatoes," Irvin said, adding that the scare will end up having a negative economic impact of $25 million to $35 million.

But consumers appear to have confidence in other produce grown in the state. The agriculture department for a number of years has used the branding of "Georgia Grown" to market the state's produce, ranging from Vidalia onions to peaches.

"Locally grown produce has an appeal to our consumers, and we need more of our stores to stock and feature ‘Georgia Grown,'" Irvin said. "It's ridiculous to buy products coming in here from Mexico, when the same products are grown right here in Georgia."

Darrell Wiley of J&J Foods said customers exercise the most care when buying fresh fruits and vegetables.

An example is the way corn is sold in the supermarket. At J&J, customers buying corn remove the shuck in the store to examine the ear of corn.

"When we can, we buy locally," Wiley said, adding that when the bottom fell out of the tomato market, they were paying only 50 cents per pound, a dollar lower than a year ago.

"The farmers have a hard time understanding that," he said.

Wiley said that Georgia products like peaches always outsell those from California and other peach-producing areas.

Drew Echols of Jaemor Farm Market said the peach harvest from his family's orchards has been bountiful with top quality peaches. He said customers have been coming to buy them with the knowledge they were grown on site.

"People don't want a lot of diesel (costs) tied up in their produce," Echols said. "They want to know where it came from. That's especially important to younger consumers."

He said the same is true for other products sold at the farm market.

"For the past six or eight months, we've been buying eggs from the Chestnut Mountain Egg Co. and egg sales have tripled with people knowing they came from within the county," Echols said.

An Associated Press-Ipsos poll finds that nearly half of consumers have changed their eating and buying habits in the past six months because they're afraid they could get sick by eating contaminated food.

They also overwhelmingly support setting up a better system to trace produce in an outbreak back to the source, the poll found.

The salmonella outbreak sickened more than 1,200 people in 42 states since the first cases were seen in April. Although federal officials lifted the tomato warning Thursday, the cause of the outbreak remains unknown. Hot peppers now are under suspicion -- especially jalapenos, serrano peppers and fresh cilantro -- and tomatoes have not been cleared everywhere.

While the poll found that three in four people remain confident about the overall safety of food, 46 percent said they were worried they might get sick from eating contaminated products. The same percentage said that because of safety warnings, they have avoided items they normally would have purchased.

The survey was conducted by telephone July 10-14 with 1,000 adults and had a sampling error margin of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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