The initiative, due to begin in the summer of 2007, comes in response to recurring salmonella outbreaks associated with fresh and fresh-cut tomatoes. "This initiative is part of a strategy to reduce foodborne illness by focusing food safety assessments on specific products, practices, and growing areas that have been found to be problematic in the past," said Robert Brackett, director of FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN). "Produce is an important part of a healthy diet and FDA wants to improve its safety by better understanding the causes of foodborne illness and by promoting more effective methods of safe food production, delivery, and preparation." During the past decade, the consumption of fresh and fresh-cut tomatoes has been linked to 12 different outbreaks of foodborne illness in the United States. Those outbreaks include 1,840 confirmed cases of illness. According to FDA, the majority of these have been traced to product originating from the Eastern shore of Virginia and from Florida, although outbreaks have also been traced to Georgia, South Carolina, Ohio, and California. In its new initiative, the agency will collaborate with the state health and agriculture departments in Virginia and Florida, and will also work with several universities and members of the produce industry. The program will begin in July with FDA visits to Virginia-based tomato farms and packing facilities to assess their food safety practices and to what degree they implement Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) and Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs). Assessment of a variety of environmental factors including irrigation water, wells, procedures for mixing chemicals, drought and flooding events, and animal proximity to growing fields will also be conducted during the farm and packing facility visits. FDA said it would also continue outreach with the industry at all points in the supply chain, as well as facilitate and promote research on tomato safety. The identification of practices or conditions that potentially lead to product contamination is designed to allow FDA to improve its guidance and policy on tomato safety. The new initiative is modeled after the Leafy Greens Initiative that was initiated in August last year, in collaboration with the State of California's Department of Health Services and Department of Food and Agriculture. It is also consistent with the 2004 FDA Produce Safety Action Plan goal of minimizing the incidence of foodborne illness associated with the consumption of fresh produce. The findings of the Tomato Safety Initiative will be publicly shared once the effort is completed.