June 13, 2008 in Nation/World

Mexico halts tomato exports

Olga R. Rodriguez Associated Press
Associated Press photo

Workers stand with crates of tomatoes at the Central de Abastos market in Mexico City on Thursday. Associated Press
(Full-size photo)

Companies subpoenaed

» WASHINGTON – Lawmakers voted Thursday to subpoena nine companies responsible for analyzing the most dangerous food entering the country in an investigation that gained more urgency with an outbreak of salmonella from tomatoes.

» Foods posing a potential danger can enter the marketplace only after a laboratory has determined that they are safe, according to Food and Drug Administration rules. But investigators have been told that private labs often test food until a clean result is obtained.

» ”This repeated testing is done without FDA knowledge that potentially dangerous food has been imported into this country and has entered commerce,” said Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., chairman of the House subcommittee that authorized the subpoenas.

Associated Press

MEXICO CITY – Export-quality tomatoes labeled “Ready to Eat” in English flooded Mexico City markets on Thursday after a salmonella scare in the U.S. trapped them south of the border.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has warned consumers against three types of raw tomatoes that have sickened 167 people in 17 states since mid-April. It has not pinpointed the outbreak’s source but cleared imports from six countries – though not from Mexico, which supplies 80 percent of tomatoes imported into the U.S.

Tomatoes from several counties in Florida are also under suspicion, the FDA said.

Mexican growers and government officials called the warning unjust, noting it has brought exports to a halt and could cripple Mexico’s $1 billion tomato industry. The U.S. has no proof that any contaminated tomatoes were from Mexico, they say.

“What we hope is that they finish their investigation soon” and clear the Mexican fruit, Agriculture Secretary Alberto Cardenas said Thursday. “Mexican tomatoes are clean.”

A delegation of Mexican officials flew to Washington D.C. on Thursday to help the FDA find the source of the outbreak, Cardenas added.

Mexican tomato growers say their produce is subject to double the scrutiny that U.S. tomatoes face: inspected first by Mexican officials and then again at the border when crossing into the U.S.

But some U.S. consumers already associate the outbreak with Mexican produce, and stopped buying the fruit this week.

“We can’t sell a single box of tomatoes,” said Jesus Macias, sales manager at the Productora Agricola Industrial del Noreste, a tomato grower that normally ships 50,000 boxes of tomatoes a day to an importer in Chula Vista, California.

Instead, he now sends his top quality tomatoes to markets around Mexico where they sell for a third the U.S. price. He leaves lesser-quality produce, normally sold in Mexico, to rot.

At the capital’s bustling central food market, truckloads of tomatoes are now arriving in boxes originally meant for the U.S.

The top quality tomatoes now sell for 35 cents a pound in the capital – a third below normal prices.

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