Baja plays big role in tomato deal

05/31/2011 10:47:00 AM
Fred Wilkinson

The Baja California tomato deal has advanced to such an extent over the past decade that it almost is considered synonymous with the California deal.

The peak season mirrors that of California, food safety standards have tightened as they have in California, and quality and yields have improved significantly.

Grower-shippers attribute many of the advances in yields and quality to the rise of shade houses.

San Diego-based Pinos Produce Inc. started offering shade house-grown tomatoes about 10 years ago, sales manager Danny Uribe said.

Shade houses are a “huge investment,” so they’re not something a company jumps into all at once.

“You put them up as you can afford them,” Uribe said.

Pinos just finished the last of its more than 100 shade houses last year, he said, adding that the project was well worth the capital investment.

“We’re experiencing enormous cost savings,” he said. “It was a godsend for us to go to the shade houses.”

Shade houses allow growers to use water more efficiently, protect plants from pests and other damage and improve yields per acre.

Pinos grows primarily roma tomatoes, along with some vine-ripes and a few grape and cherry tomatoes.

Nogales, Ariz.-based Frank’s Distributing of Produce LLC/Bionova Produce Inc. has had a Baja California deal for nearly 20 years to help ensure year-round availability, said Montie McGovern, sales director.

The company sources vine-ripe, roma and grape tomatoes from Baja, all grown in shade houses to enhance production.

“We do both organic and conventional,” McGovern added.

Springfield, Ill.-based Tom Lange Company, which has an Escondido, Calif., location, can source from just about anywhere, salesman Tim Biggar said. But Baja California, with its year-round availability, has become a major supplier.

“It’s come a long way from 20 years ago,” he said.

With increased emphasis on quality and safety, “they have really stepped it up,” Biggar said, just as U.S. growers have.

Biggar said that, from a food safety standpoint, he has no qualms about shipping product from Mexico.

“When it comes to food safety, we’re all interrelated,” said Mark Munger, vice president of marketing for Andrew & Williamson Fresh Produce in San Diego.

A food safety problem affects every company, big and small, “until science identifies the issue and where it comes from,” he said.

The firm operates in a transparent environment when it comes to food safety, even inviting retail and foodservice customers to visit growers in Baja California and share their thoughts.

“That’s how we learn and get better,” Munger said. “Many retail and foodservice customers have amazing food safety expertise.”

Pinos Produce also is into food safety “big time,” Uribe said.

The company is audited twice a year and has a constantly evolving program that complies with the latest regulations, he said.

Product grown in Mexico actually is subjected to scrutiny that is “a little more stringent than it is in the U.S.,” Uribe said.



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