Graves Williams, a farmer in Quincy, Fla., was just a few days into a six-week tomato harvest in June 2008, when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued warnings linking tomatoes to a salmonella outbreak in New Mexico and Texas. Americans stopped buying tomatoes. Williams let about 80 percent of his crop rot in the fields that summer. Other farmers couldn’t sell their tomatoes either.

The loss, it turns out, was for nothing: Serrano and jalapeño peppers were the real culprit. But that doesn’t mean the federal government owes tomato growers like Williams anything for their ruined harvest.

Williams joined a group of growers in a lawsuit against the U.S. government, and earlier this month a judge dismissed their complaint (pdf). While the FDA issued warnings about tomatoes, the judge ruled that regulators did not prohibit tomato sales and therefore did not “take their property.” The growers’ attorney, Stephen Turner, says he will appeal the decision.

The case highlights the difficult balance that food-safety officials must strike when protecting public health at the expense of commercial interests. It becomes especially sticky when authorities blame the wrong party.

“We were a victim of a total government screw-up,” Williams says in an interview. Florida farmers estimate they lost about $100 million, according to the complaint, and that figure allegedly swells to more than $300 million if farm workers, distributors, and retailers are included. Georgia’s tomato industry pegs its lost at about $25.7 million.

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