Mexico reels from tomato salmonella outbreak

06/26/2008 12:00:00 AM
Jose Escobedo


Tomatoes in Mexico City's Central de Abasto market. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported June 24 that Mexico exported 27.8 million pounds of tomatoes to the U.S. from June 1-22. During the same time last year, the amount was 43.2 million pounds.

(June 26, 10:40 a.m.) More than $1 million in losses, with another 325 tons of product, worth $400,000, in jeopardy. That’s what Arturo Salinas, director of operations for Pharr, Texas-based Bonanza 2001, a tomato grower-shipper that sources its romas from 150 acres in Autlán de Navarro, Jalisco, said he has lost in the past three weeks. He said he has about 325 tons of romas, worth $400,000, sitting in a warehouse in Pharr, Texas.

“This situation has affected us, it has been very devastating, and the market took a real fall. Consumers are terrified and nobody is buying,” Salinas said June 25.

While the Food and Drug Administration is busy tracking the source of the Salmonella Saintpaul outbreak, growers in Mexico are suffering the consequences of the FDA’s advisory.

Salinas said before the advisory, the company shipped 10 to 15 loads a day; now, Bonanza ships just two or three loads a day.

“We are having such a hard time selling them. Before (the outbreak), the market was three times stronger than it is now,” he said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported on June 24 that Mexico exported 27.8 million pounds of tomatoes to the U.S. from June 1 through June 22 this year. During the same time last year, the number was 43.2 million pounds.

McAllen, Texas-based GR Produce Inc. echoes Bonanza’s sentiments. The company has 1,402 acres of tomatoes in the states of Sinaloa, Coahuila and Chihuahua.

“We estimated our losses and 79 truckloads have not been able to sell,” GR Produce general manager Abraham Dajlala said. “Every day, we lose thousands and thousands of dollars.”

Product rotting while awaiting test results

At the border in McAllen, the FDA is doing daily inspections and taking tomato samples stored in warehouses in an effort to trace back the salmonella source.

“The FDA lets the tomatoes cross the border, so they will inspect a few here and there. They are currently taking samples,” Salinas said. “After the sampling is done, nobody can touch (the tomatoes) until the labs results come in,” he said.

That wait is problematic, grower-shippers said, because product can sit idle for up to 10 days, and isn’t getting any fresher in the meantime.

Although the FDA has still not cleared the states of Sinaloa, Coahuila and Jalisco, once the lab results show no signs of salmonella, the tomatoes from those states can be sold in U.S. markets, grower-shippers said. Dajlala said after the FDA turns in the results, the tomatoes are cleared and ready to be sold in the U.S.

Although Dajlala is able to sell the tomatoes once tests clear them, he said he prefers not to.

“After eight days, the tomatoes are in a bad condition and the color is very red,” Dajlala said.

Despite the FDA’s traceback efforts, some growers said they are not satisfied with the way the agency has been handling the situation.

“They have cleared people that were not in production, and they got cleared right away,” Salinas said. “I understand that the safety of the American people comes first, but I think we should have had a quicker response timeframe from the FDA, and it should have been a while back.”

Market saturation

While Mexican officials and FDA officials continue to make progress in this matter, Mexico City’s Central de Abasto, considered the largest wholesale market in the world, has seen tomato saturation in June.

“The biggest repercussion in this salmonella crisis is that tomato prices have gone down between 15% and 20%,” said Raymundo Collins Flores, general director and administrator of the market.

The central market in Guadalajara, Jalisco, the Unión de Comerciantes del Mercado de Abastos de Guadalajara, A.C. (UCMA), also has seen an oversupply of tomatoes lying around its stalls.

“When we received the FDA’s news (of the outbreak) we saw an increase in tomatoes in the market and the prices went down,” said José Luis Guzmán González, president of UCMA. “Now we are handling normal quantities of tomatoes, and the prices have stabilized. This crisis has definitely affected Jalisco growers.”

Hoping for quick resolution

Representatives from SENASICA (Servicio Nacional de Sanidad, Inocuidad y Calidad Agroalimentaria), Mexico's equivalent to the U.S. Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, and U.S. officials met in Washington DC June 16-20 to discuss specific analysis on the salmonella advisory.

SENASICA director Enrique Sanchez Cruz said the FDA and SENASICA are working together in this matter, and he hopes that by early-to-mid-July, the FDA will release its conclusion on the outbreak affecting Sinaloa, Coahuila and Jalisco.

Sanchez Cruz also said that there will be no trade ramifications and that NAFTA will not be changed. In addition, he said that Mexico is still exporting tomatoes to other countries, such as Canada.

Jerry Wagner, sales and marketing director for Nogales, Ariz.-based Farmer’s Best International LLC, which sources most of its tomatoes from Sinaloa, said the FDA advisory caught Farmer’s Best at the end of the roma deal out of La Cruz, Mexico.

If the advisory had occured in February, the outcome may have been tragic with several Nogales-area companies possibly going bankrupt, Wagner said.

George Gotsis, of Nogales-based Omega Produce, whose family has been in the tomato growing business since 1920, said the FDA advisory took him by surprise.

If the FDA alert had been issued during Sinaloa’s peak season, Gotsis said it would have been “a complete and absolute disaster.”

Approximately 200,000 to 300,000 tomatoes would have been lost per day in Sinaloa, he said.

Trying to speed the search process

Culiacan-based CAADES (Confederation of Agriculture Associations of the State of Sinaloa) has been working with the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas, Nogales, to provide information to the FDA and SAGARPA, Mexico’s Secretariat of Agriculture, Livestock, Rural Development, Fisheries and Food, to help expedite the search for the source of the outbreak.

“We have been in contact with the FDA, providing information, explaining how regions of Mexico work and what the distributing channels look like so they can really understand the Mexican tomato deal,” said Allison Moore, FPAA’s communications manager.

“The most important thing is to complete the traceback as soon as possible so we can isolate the problem,” Moore said.

But the damage to many of Mexico’s growers has already been done, and it may be irreparable to some.

“I don’t blame (the FDA) for the precautions they are taking, but it really hurts,” Salinas said. “They can clear Jalisco, but it’s going to be weeks before this thing goes back to normal. It has hurt us all.”



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