Increased inspections are scheduled to begin on April 1 in Nogales, Ariz., as a result of the tomato suspension agreement that took effect in September, and distributors say they’re not sure what to expect.

The agreement between the Commerce Department and Mexican tomato growers calls for U.S. Department of Agriculture inspections of all round and roma tomatoes within 24 hours of their arrival in the U.S.

The Arizona Department of Agriculture reportedly will have as many as 35 additional inspectors for tomatoes and 60 others for table grapes.

But Lance Jungmeyer, president of the Nogales-based Fresh Produce Association of the Americas, told The Packer in February that he has “serious concerns” about how the tomato inspections will affect imports of citrus, onions, avocados, grapes and other commodities.

In the past, importers could receive inspections within hours of a request, he said. After the tomato inspections start, he said he expects delays in service time for all inspections.
Nogales distributors aren’t sure what to expect.

“There will definitely be somewhat of an impact,” said Michael DuPuis, quality assurance and public relations coordinator for Nogales-based Divine Flavor LLC.

In the produce industry, “You’ve got to be prepared for anything that’s thrown your way,” he said.

“We’re gathering details and trying to determine the best process to deal with inspections involved with the tomato suspension agreement.”

“I think it’s a learning process for everyone,” DuPuis said.

Ciruli Bros., Rio Rico, Ariz., already is helping to train new inspectors to bring them up to speed by April, said partner Chris Ciruli.

This year likely will not be typical as far as crossings are concerned because of light tomato volume, he said.

“In the last several months, you’ve seen the roma and tomato crop drastically reduced due to poor weather,” he said. “When we get to April, I don’t think it will be a typical April. I think it will be a much lighter April.”

Chuck Thomas, owner and president of Thomas Produce Sales Inc. in Rio Rico, agreed.

The inspection process that kicks off in April will not be a true reflection of what it will be like in future years because of the tight markets and limited supplies, he said.

“It won’t get a true test this year.”

The real test won’t come until next year, assuming volume returns to normal, Thomas said.

Bobby Astengo, owner of Rio Rico-based Peppers Plus LLC, was trying to figure out what impact the tomato inspection process will have on peppers.

“What that will mean to other commodities, I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know what that’s going to affect.”

But he pointed out that at the time inspections start in April, there will be a decline in volume of vegetables coming from the Sinaloa Valley.

“That’s at the end of the cycle,” he said. “The temperature gets so hot that it knocks us out of that region.”

But he said tomato inspections might hinder movement of the Sonoran crops, such as watermelons and other melons.

“We’ll see how that plays out,” he said. “I’m not sure how those inspections will affect trade in general.”

It’s better that the inspection process gets underway in April rather than January, February or March, he said, which is the peak season for vegetables.

“It’s going to be a challenge,” said Brian Bernauer, director of operations and sales for Nogales-based Calavo Growers Inc.

Information has been distributed at all the ports — Nogales and in Laredo and McAllen, Texas — and Calavo has met with the USDA to show officials where inspections will be conducted and “to come up with a process,” he said.

“We’re hopeful that the transition will be as smooth as possible, knowing that there will be some hiccups,” Bernauer said. “I don’t think it will be as bad as everybody thinks it will be.” 

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