The Eleven Rivers Growers food safety and quality assurance label enters Mexico’s winter season with a boost from acceptance of its standards by SENASICA, the National Service of Health, Food Safety and Quality.

Eleven Rivers Growers Cooperative LLC plans to start the deal with about 15 companies carrying its label and finish with 24 or so. All are in Sinaloa, but the nonprofit cooperative expects to have members nationwide by summer. Last year’s volume was 8 million 25-pound boxes, and should reach 12 million this time around, according to spokesman Fernando Mariscal.

Participants include a variety of Mexican growers. Distributors have included Del Campo Supreme, SunFed, Tricar Sales, Omega Produce Co., Ciruli Bros., The Oppenheimer Group, Farmer’s Best International, J-C Distributing Inc., H M Distributors, Marengo Foods Co. LLC, Divine Flavor, and G R Produce Inc. among others.

The approval from Mexico’s counterpart to the Food and Drug Administration came as October started.

“We are going to be the first independent standard to be recognized by SENASICA,” Mariscal said.

That decision left Eleven Rivers just two months to negotiate with Primus Labs, Safe Quality Food Institute and Scientific Certification Systems and set the co-op on a path to covering the standard.

Beyond third-party audits, Eleven Rivers is also committed to weekly verifications at each grower, a more demanding task. The coop started working with Intertek on those in August, switching from Cesavesin.

“Cesavesin is part owned producers and part owned by government,” Mariscal said. “It was interesting to work with them and important to learn the whole process and see how we can do it. But for the next season we need a totally independent organization to be able to operate under the Global Food Safety Initiative.”

The weekly checks were not part of Eleven Rivers’ original plan, but turned out to be necessary.

“We saw that if you are working on a monthly basis you cannot achieve the performance level you need,” Mariscal said. “The only way is to do it weekly, so you don’t make it easy on the challenge.”

The co-op finished its first year with 93% of performance meeting standards.

The program is one for larger growers.

“If you’re going to have weekly auditing, you have to have important volume to cover the expense,” Mariscal said. “Each producer pays independently for certification to the company they want; but once they get their certification and comply with everything required, they pay an annual fee to be part of the group and we cover all weekly audits. We don’t want them to have any doubt whether they pass or not.”

Noncompliance results in restricting use of the label. Eleven Rivers is developing a digital system that will report the Intertek results directly to members and probably to government authorities as well.

The annual fee covers label costs, promotions and auditing expenses.

For transparency’s sake, Mariscal said, the coop framed its model in reference to the widely accepted tomato metrics published by the United Fresh Produce Association. In its first year, tomatoes were about 40% of labeled products.

The flurry of activity prompted by SENASICA's approval, as well as the co-op’s experience at recent Produce Marketing Association Fresh Summits, prompted a reduced presence at this year’s trade show.

“This is the first year we did not have a booth at PMA,” Mariscal said. “It’s a change of strategy. In the past three years we had some success, but there have not been many new people to meet. Because we’re not reaching any new clients or markets, and we have a lot of work to do training auditors, our focus is more internal.”