As Mark Munger sees it, a berry grower in Mexico has to work twice as hard to earn half the respect a U.S. grower gets.
Munger, vice president of marketing for Andrew & Williamson Fresh Produce, San Diego, said the grower-shipper harvested its first strawberry crop in central Mexico from December to the end of March.
The company also grows strawberries in Baja California and in Oxnard, Santa Maria and Watsonville.
“It’s a short window, but it helps us get into a winter berry program earlier and gives us another distinct growing area in case there’s a rainstorm in Baja,” Munger said.
The company can also bring its Mexican berries north through McAllen, Texas, he said, which considerably shortens the distance to East Coast markets in this year of high freight costs.
The problem, he said, is that Mexican growers can’t escape the misconceptions that swirl around the industry.
“We are not in Mexico because it’s cheaper or because we can take shortcuts or because we can use all kinds of pesticides and there’s no regulation,” Munger said.
“We’re there because it’s the best place to grow strawberries so we can have a year-round program. And we’re aggressive about food safety.”
He said detractors forget that 100% of produce grown in Mexico has to cross a border under the gaze of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration, the Department of Homeland Security and the California Highway Patrol.
“About 2% to 3% of our produce is inspected by USDA and FDA,” he said.
“Most growers are lucky if one-tenth of 1% is tested in random samples, so if they’re doing pesticide analysis on 3% of your berries, it’s an indication that your farms are clean.”
Munger said he’s never looked at food safety as a marketing tool.
“You can have the most fantastic food safety, but if an irresponsible grower creates a food safety crisis in strawberries, the whole industry is affected,” he said.
He said consumers generally won’t hear whether the problem is in Mexico or Florida or California, they’ll just hear that strawberries aren’t safe.
“It’s easy to attack Mexico, but we’re all better off if we talk about what a great product we have and statistically how safe it is,” Munger said.