As of April 6, there were 2,143 cases of the new coronavirus COVID-19 reported in Mexico.
The virus’ impact on the Mexican grape deal was still to be determined as of late March.
Grower-shippers say they are being watchful, careful and taking no chances.
“I was in Hermosillo last week and Caborca two weeks ago and, on the production over there, they’re taking very good care of everything and trying to do the best they can to try to stop or minimize the effect of the Coronavirus,” Miguel Suarez, owner of Rio Rico, Ariz.-based grower-shipper MAS Melons & Grapes, said in mid- to late March.
“Up until now, everything is normal.”
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He said he expects that normality to hold; however, he can’t speak for buyers.
“On the buying side over here, you can see there’s some panic buying on products, and all of us are trying to get our supplies,” Suarez said March 20.
“Now, the grapes are coming more from Chile and at this moment, they’re active because of panic buying. What is going to happen in two weeks or a month when the unemployment track is going to start seeing the effect of that?”
For the moment, everything seemed to be going as expected as the Mexican grape deal approached, Suarez said.
“So far, our conversations with customers, retailers and wholesalers in the U.S. and other countries are normal, and we’re still talking the normal way we talk every year,” he said.
“What’s going to happen in a couple of months, I don’t know. We’ll see how the movement stays on the retail side. That’s what’s going to dictate what’s going to happen.”
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Foodservice-focused sales have taken a hit, as state and local governments have, in many cases, shuttered schools and “non-essential” businesses, including restaurants, and set strict limits on numbers of people allowed to gather.
Retail grocery stores, however, remained open, and that’s the heart of the grape business, Suarez said.
“Foodservice is part of it, but retail, most of the movement is on retail,” he said.
COVID-19 did touch the Mexican grape deal in at least one way, when the pandemic forced cancellation of the annual Sonora Grape Summit, scheduled for the second straight year in Tubac, Ariz.
Instead, organizers held a webinar March 19.
“The entire food supply chain is an essential industry, and Mexican agriculture is a part of it, and these folks are taking it very, very seriously,” said John Pandol, director of special projects for Delano, Calif.-based Pandol Bros. Inc.
Pandol served as a host on the webinar.
“I think one of the big differences between a field here in Mexico and the U.S. is most have on-site infirmaries to some pretty wide poly clinics,” he said.
“They have procedures that have been in place for decades. When people come to live on site, they are screened by a healthcare worker.”
Fortunately, Pandol said, the virus is not foodborne.
“It’s a human-to-human transmission, so we have to not fear foods from foreign sources any more than from our domestic sources,” he said.
Sonoroa government officials, nonetheless, are not taking any chances with COVID-19, Pandol said.
“Their concerns are similar to the U.S.,” Pandol said.
The challenge is making sure you keep the workforce stays healthy, Pandol said.
“As they have people who live on-site in working housing, they’ve always screened people as they came in,” he said. “They get people, busloads of migrants from other parts of Mexico. They’ve upped that screening and they’ve talked about screening them in origin.”
Then again, Pandol said, grower-shippers in Mexico are well-versed in being careful.
“We’ve been implementing these food-safety protocols over the last 25 years,” he said.
There’s no reason to be afraid of fresh produce, Pandol said.
“I think it’s been fairly communicated that foodstuffs are not a vector for contaminant, that is a person-to-person thing,” he said.
“In that sense, especially items like grapes that are normally in plastic and shielded, you almost hate to speculate on things like this and cause panic. But, certainly, we’ve seen it up on grapes. Of course, much like the guy said on TV, our store business is up but our foodservice business is off.”
Nogales, Ariz.-based Divine Flavor LLC recently sent an e-mail to all of its customers to reassure them.
“Although this situation continues to evolve, we want all of our customers to know we are working vigorously to meet the needs of all during this challenging period,” the company said.
“We know our industry has undergone some major changes, which is why our company must take the necessary actions to stay operational and continue servicing our customers the fresh produce they depend on.”