Few Safeguards for Mexican Produce Heading North

Published on
by
The Associated Press

Few Safeguards for Mexican Produce Heading North

by
Mark Walsh / Olga R. Rodriguez

Field manager Julio Aleman stands beside a pepper field in Hidalgo, Mexico, where U.S. Food and Drug Administration officials have checked for and found salmonella, Friday, Aug. 8, 2008. While some Mexican producers grow fruits and vegetables under strict sanitary conditions for export to the U.S., many don't and they can still send their produce across the border easily. (AP Photo/ Monica Rueda)

ALLENDE, Mexico -- At the end of a dirt road
in northern Mexico, the conveyer belts processing hundreds of tons of
vegetables a year for U.S. and Mexican markets are open to the
elements, protected only by a corrugated metal roof.

The
U.S. Food and Drug Administration suspects this packing plant, its
warehouse in McAllen, Texas, and a farm in Mexico are among the sources
of the United States' largest outbreak of food-borne illness in a
decade, which infected at least 1,440 people with a rare form of
salmonella.

A plant manager confirmed to The
Associated Press that workers handling chili peppers aren't required to
separate them according to the sanitary conditions in which they were
grown, offering a possible explanation for how such a rare strain of
salmonella could have caused such a large outbreak.

The
AP has found that while some Mexican producers grow fruits and
vegetables under strict sanitary conditions for export to the U.S.,
many don't - and they can still send their produce across the border
easily.

Neither the U.S. nor the Mexican
governments impose any safety requirements on farms and processing
plants. That includes those using unsanitary conditions - like those at
Agricola Zaragoza - and brokers or packing plants that mix export-grade
fruits and vegetables with lower-quality produce.

In fact, the only thing a Mexican company needs to do to sell produce to the United States is to register online.

Some
Mexican farms and processing plants have high standards of sanitation -
and get private companies to certify those standards - so they can sell
to U.S. supermarket chains that wouldn't buy from uncertified ones.

But
there is no public list of the chains that require sanitary practices,
meaning there's no way to know whether the fruit and vegetables in any
particular store is certified or not.

The only
U.S. government enforcement consists of 625 FDA inspectors who conduct
spot checks of both U.S. and foreign produce, reviewing less than 1
percent of all imports. Beyond that, it is entirely up to the
supermarkets and restaurants to police their produce.

The
best Mexican producers grow crops in fenced-off fields, irrigate them
with fresh water and pack them in spotless plants where workers dress
in protective gear from head to toe. But there are still plenty of
farms with unfenced fields where wildlife can roam freely, and which
use untreated water - sometimes laced with sewage.

Salmonella
can lurk on the skin of produce or penetrate inside. Cooking kills it,
but washing raw produce doesn't always eliminate it, which is why
safety experts stress preventing contamination.

Agricola
Zaragoza is one of the uncertified plants, manager Emilio Garcia told
the AP. He said the packing plant washes produce from both certified
and uncertified producers, opening up the possibility for
contamination. He refused to give details about his suppliers.

The
FDA suspects Mexican jalapeno and serrano chilies processed at Agricola
Zaragoza caused the latest outbreak, though it also thinks tomatoes
could have played a role. It concedes the ultimate source may never be
known.

Cesar Fragoso, president of Mexico's
Chili Peppers Growers Association, said most Mexican pepper farms sell
their crops to distributors without knowing what country they are bound
for. Because of that, he said, few bother to get certification.

In
addition, lots of produce passes from distributor to distributor before
reaching its final destination, increasing the potential for
contamination and making tracing outbreaks much more difficult. Former
FDA official William Hubbard said only 10 percent of outbreaks are ever
completely resolved.

"It is very common for
distributors to receive products from numerous sources, numerous farms
and in some cases multiple countries," Hubbard said. "That's just the
way produce moves."

In the latest
contamination case, the U.S. government traced the suspect jalapenos to
two farms in the state of Tamaulipas. Both shipped through Agricola
Zaragoza in neighboring Nuevo Leon state. Agricola Zaragoza shipped the
peppers to its warehouse in McAllen, Texas, where the FDA found the
first contaminated jalapeno.

Though usually
smaller in scale, such outbreaks are relatively common - at least 3,000
between 1990 and 2006 from FDA-regulated foods, according to the Center
for Science in the Public Interest, a nutrition and food safety
advocacy group. Those numbers include fruits, vegetables and seafood,
and contamination both in the U.S. and abroad.

The
cases include a 2004 hepatitis outbreak linked to Mexican green onions
that killed four people and sickened 650 in Pennsylvania, and a 2006
nationwide E. coli outbreak that infected about 300 people and killed
three and was traced to tainted spinach from California.

The
U.S. Senate is considering a bill that would require the FDA to issue
regulations for ensuring safer fresh produce. In Mexico, a federal
produce safety law was passed in 1994 but analysts say it is rarely
enforced. Mexico's Agriculture Department did not respond to a request
for an interview.

Kathy Means, a vice
president for the U.S. Produce Marketing Associations, said food safety
is in the hands of the food industry, with most major produce buyers
requiring both U.S. and foreign food producers to have third-party
audit programs. However, Means said, not all buyers follow the same
rules.

"It's not government-regulated, so it's up to the company to require it," she said.

At
Alfonso Alvarez's fenced-off 15-acre farm in Jalisco state, tomatoes
are grown in greenhouses and irrigated with water from a deep well.
Workers wear hair nets, gloves and aprons, and signs require them to
wash their hands after going to the bathroom.

Alvarez
sells its crop to a Canadian company that imports to the U.S. and
Canada and has required his farm be certified by a U.S. private company.

"Those
of us who want to enter the U.S. market and position our brand know we
must meet all those standards, because we also know it will be a
profitable business in the long run," Alvarez said.

He
and other Mexican farmers with sanitary farms want the United States to
set up a certification program that covers both growers and packing
plants.

"Those who grow in open fields will ruin it for those who produce in greenhouses," Alvarez said, "and that's not fair."

Associated
Press writers Mark Walsh reported this story from Allende and Olga R.
Rodriguez from Mexico City and Zapoltitic, Mexico. AP medical writer
Lauran Neergaard in Washington contributed to this report.

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