MEXICO CITY – Mexican farmers are mad enough to throw, well, rotten tomatoes at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which is focusing heavily on Mexico as a potential source of the fruit that has sickened hundreds of people in the United States with salmonella.
Mexican tomatoes are putrefying in warehouses south of the border. Producers say they’re losing millions of dollars in export sales even though U.S. health officials haven’t discovered the pathogen in any of the Mexican samples they’ve tested to date.
“This situation is terrible,” said Antonio Ruiz, general manager of Agricola Caborita, a company in the western state of Sinaloa that sells tomatoes to the American market. “We have hundreds of canceled orders. … We’re worried and angry because we know that our product isn’t to blame, yet we’re paying the consequences.”
The FDA advised U.S. consumers a little more than a week ago to avoid eating raw red plum, red Roma or round red tomatoes. Mexico is a major supplier of those varieties to the U.S. market, exporting about 800,000 tons to its neighbor in 2007, according to Mexico’s agriculture secretariat.
The FDA said last week that it was concentrating its investigation on Mexico and South Florida, which provided the bulk of America’s tomatoes during April, when the first U.S. salmonella cases appeared.
The FDA has not banned imports of Mexican tomatoes. In fact, tomatoes grown in the Mexican state of Baja California Norte now appear on the agency’s “safe list” of growing regions whose fruit U.S. officials have determined safe. Baja tomatoes weren’t being harvested at the time of the outbreak.
But Mexican producers say the exclusion of all other major Mexican growing regions from the safe list has crippled sales. They said U.S. customers are steering clear of all Mexican tomatoes until the FDA can give the nation a clean bill of health.
Ignacio Aguilar, owner of Nacho’s Wholesale Produce in Los Angeles, said tomato sales have plunged 70 percent since last week. They don’t even want tomatoes from Baja.
“They don’t want to take any chances,” he said. “They’re afraid that people might get sick.”
Many Mexicans view the U.S. action as unfair and potentially crippling to their $1 billion tomato export industry. The nation’s health authorities so far have reported no similar outbreak of salmonella among the Mexican public.