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After Salmonella Outbreak, Mexican Growers Still Face Little Regulation

Sep 15, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP
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Mexican farm and packing houses that import produce to the U.S., the probable points of origin of a massive Salmonella outbreak that sickened more than 1000 people, are not subject to any safety requirements, the Associated Press reports.  As a result, many  foods and vegetables meant for export to the U.S. are processed in unsanitary conditions.  According to the Associated Press report,  the only thing a Mexican company needs to do to export produce to the U.S. is to register online.

This past summer's Salmonella outbreak sickened 1,448 people across the country.  Initially, the outbreak was blamed on certain varieties of raw tomatoes, but even after the tomatoes were taken off the market, illnesses continued.  In July, the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) warned consumers to stay away from Mexican grown jalapenos. The warning was later expanded to include Mexican-grown Serranos, as well.  The FDA based that warning on tests it conducted at a Mexican farm which detected Salmonella in a sample of peppers and water used for irrigation.

Many Mexican produce processing producers do operate under sanitary conditions. These producers get private companies to certify those standards, so they can sell to U.S. supermarket chains that wouldn't buy from uncertified ones.  Unfortunately, there is no way for American consumers to know if imported produce sold in a particular store is certified.

According to the Associated Press, at other Mexican farms, it is not unusual to find unfenced fields where wildlife can roam freely, and which use untreated water for irrigation.  Packing houses are often open to the elements, insects and rodents.  What's worse, some of these packing houses process produce from both certified and uncertified producers.  So even vegetables grown in optimal conditions can end up contaminated.

Unfortunately, the FDA does little to protect consumers from these substandard practices.  Neither it nor the Mexican government impose standards on producers in that country.  What's worse, according to the Associated Press, the FDA has only 62  inspectors who conduct spot checks of both U.S. and foreign produce.   These overburdened inspectors review less than 1 percent of all imports.

While this summer's Salmonella outbreak was exceptionally large, it was not the first such incident to be linked to Mexican-grown produce.  In  2004, for example, a hepatitis outbreak linked to Mexican green onions killed four people and sickened 650 in Pennsylvania.  

Such incidents have sparked calls for reform. In Mexico, a federal produce safety law was passed in 1994, but  it is rarely enforced. The U.S. Senate is currently considering a bill that would require the FDA to issue regulations for ensuring safer fresh produce.

Even growers in Mexico want to see more action from U.S. regulators.  A Mexican farmer who operates a sanitary, certified farm told the Associated Press that he and - and many others like him  - want the U.S. regulators to start certifying  both growers and packing plants in his country.  

"Those who grow in open fields will ruin it for those who produce in greenhouses," he said, "and that's not fair."

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