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Group seeks quarantine of Mexico cantaloupes

August 29, 2001|By LAURA MITCHELL, Staff Writer

Southwestern farmers are calling for a quarantine on cantaloupes imported from Mexico because of chronic problems with food safety.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a food safety warning in May regarding cantaloupes from Mexico after two people died and others became sick from salmonella.

This year's outbreak was the latest in a decade of problems with Mexican cantaloupe imports.

A quarantine on Mexican cantaloupe imports was proposed by growers at a meeting Aug. 22 in Phoenix between the FDA, the Western Growers Association and Sheldon Jones, director of Arizona's Department of Agriculture, said John Hawk, president of the Imperial Valley Vegetable Growers Association and a local melon grower.

Lauren Grizzle, executive director of the vegetable growers group, followed with a letter Monday to Bill Lyons, director of California's Department of Food and Agriculture stating, "We are asking you to work closely with your counterparts in Arizona and Texas to call for this quarantine immediately, before another incident is allowed to happen."


There has been no official response from the FDA or Lyons' office but Steve Lyle, director of public affairs for the CDFA, said the situation is a cause for concern and is being evaluated.

"In the U.S., we have extremely stringent and high safety standards and any infraction is at least a $1,500-$2,000 fine," Hawk said. "In Mexico there are no standards and there are no repercussions."

Hawk said only 1 percent of fruit coming from Mexico is tested at the border by the FDA. He said 1 percent is not enough when there have been ongoing problems since 1991.

"When the Mexican growers contaminate fruit, it kills our market," Hawk said. "This year our market never recovered."

Hawk said the FDA should close the border to cantaloupe imports until they know they have a good product.

"If they can't show us they have clean fruit, then why should they come in?" he asked.

Hawk said the vegetable growers group estimated cantaloupe growers in California lost about $1 million a day after the FDA issued the warning.

The FDA's salmonella warning came at the end of the Mexican cantaloupe season, which is the beginning of the U.S. season, said Steve Martori, owner of Martori Farms in Scottsdale, Ariz. Martori added it was the U.S. growers who felt the impact of the FDA warning against Mexican cantaloupes.

"We can't take another hit," Martori said. "Certainly the U.S. consumer shouldn't be exposed to this."

Before the FDA's warning, Martori said, cantaloupe prices were reported at $12 a carton. After the warning they went to $8 or lower.

"I estimate the industry had 300,000 cartons a day that were reduced $4 per carton," Martori said. "That's a total loss of $1.2 million a day that went on for several weeks."

He said the growers initiated the meeting with the FDA to send the message that something has to be done because the outbreaks can't continue.

"In general, if imported produce is scientifically shown to be a problem, we need to temporarily stop until the problem is solved," said Jill Davis, spokesperson the for Arizona Department of Agriculture. "Our first priority is food safety."

She said if there is a known problem, steps need to be taken to fix it. However, she stressed Arizona is supportive of trade with Mexico and hopes the problem can be resolved in a more positive way.

Staff Writer Laura Mitchell can be reached at 337-3452 or

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