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U.S. cantaloupe growers want Mexico to clean up act

May 30, 2002|By LAURA MITCHELL

Staff Writer

PHOENIX — California and Arizona cantaloupe farmers and state leaders challenged federal officials in a meeting here Wednesday to make unsanitary melon growers in Mexico clean up their act.

Cantaloupes from Mexico caused an outbreak of salmonella poisoning in the United States and Canada earlier this month. Similar outbreaks over the last decade from Mexican melons have been blamed for several deaths in the United States.

Last year the FDA issued a food safety warning following two deaths and for illnesses tied to salmonella.

"How many seasons do you have to go through with this to know there's a problem?" Arizona Department of Agriculture Director Sheldon Jones asked representatives of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration during Wednesday's meeting.

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Arizona farmers Steve Martori and Will Rousseau called for an import alert on cantaloupes from Mexico to force the issue.

"Salmonella-tainted cantaloupes not only hurt our market but killed people," Rousseau said. "The only way you are going to get their attention is with an economic penalty."

Holtville cantaloupe farmer John Hawk said in an earlier interview last year's outbreak "crushed the local market."

Cantaloupes from Mexico are harvested earlier in the season and when there are salmonella outbreaks, it hurts consumer confidence in all cantaloupes even though domestic cantaloupes have not had any problems with salmonella outbreaks, Hawk said.

The 2001 outbreak was not taken care of because the importer refused to recall the product and reveal where the cantaloupes came from, Hawk alleged. People lost confidence and stopped buying melons, he added.

At that time, Southwestern farmers called for a quarantine on cantaloupes from Mexico because of the chronic problems with food safety.

The FDA eventually traced the source of the problem to a grower in the Nogales region of Mexico.

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

Robert Deininger, director of the FDA's Southwest import district, revealed the following approximate figures for the administration's cantaloupe testing along the Mexican border:

· in 1999, 52 samples were taken;

· in 2000, 34 samples were taken;

· in 2001, 27 samples were taken

· this year, 64 samples were taken so far.

Samples can be made up of a number of melons, not just one.

Mexico's cantaloupe season is finished for the year.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 500,000 metric tons of cantaloupes were imported into the United States in 1999. Almost 200,000 metric tons came from Mexico, the largest importer.

"I expected you to say there were thousands of samples taken," California Department of Food and Agriculture Secretary Bill Lyons said.

Deininger said he has the authority to increase the number of samples taken within his district but other issues, such as investigating where the unsanitary melons originate and how they are handled, also need to be addressed.

The FDA has courses to train Mexican growers and suppliers on how to handle food safely but the training hasn't been done yet, he said.

A shipper or grower who is placed on import alert must pass five consecutive import tests. The company also has to show it has identified the source of the problem and corrected it, Deininger said.

An entire region could be put on import alert, which would require more testing and require growers in the area to show the problems have been corrected, he said.

Martori said there are cantaloupe growers in Mexico whose crops are as clean and safe as any in the United States. Still, forcing the issue with an import alert would put pressure on the Mexican government to get training for growers and shippers who need it.

Federal officials said they also wanted to keep bad produce out of the United States.

Brenda Holman, regional food and drug director of the FDA, said she would agree to look at ways to prevent the problems and put more pressure on growers and shippers.

Holman said the FDA would work on a strategy that could serve as a model for handling other imported produce.

Local cantaloupe farmers Michael Abatti, Ken Peterson, Emil Schaffner and Jack Vessey attended the meeting representing cantaloupe farmers from the Imperial Valley.

The next meeting is scheduled for June 25 in Dallas.

>> Staff Writer Laura Mitchell can be reached at 337-3452 or lauramitchell9@yahoo.com.

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