July 7, 2008, Autlan, Mexico –
Inspectors are collecting soil, water and produce samples, reviewing
export logs and combing packing plants in three major tomato-growing
states in Mexico.
July 7, 2008, Autlan, Mexico – Inspectors are collecting soil, water and produce samples, reviewing export logs and combing packing plants in three major tomato-growing states in Mexico.
But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration appears no closer to finding the source of a mysterious salmonella outbreak that has sickened more than 900 people.
The FDA is not even 100-per-cent sure tomatoes are the cause – adding peppers and cilantro to its list of foods under investigation in the outbreak.
A team of three FDA inspectors has gone through five farms in the western Mexican states Jalisco and Sinaloa in the last two weeks, looking at all aspects of tomato production: the greenhouses where they are grown, the packing plants where they are shut into boxes, the shipping methods for the trip north.
They also plan to visit the northern state Coahuila to finish up their study.
The results can't come too soon for the three Mexican states that were targetted by the FDA, along with farms in Texas and Florida.
Bonanza 2001 farm in Autlan, Jalisco, which normally exports about 10,000 tonnes of tomatoes a year to the United States, has hundreds of tonnes sitting in a warehouse near the Texas-Mexico border as demand has plummetted, said spokesman Luis Almejo.
They may rot.
Sinaloa growers also face big losses.
“We’re demanding that they release those results as soon as possible so that Sinaloa can be cleared of any suspicion,” said Manuel Tarriba, president of Sinaloa's Tomato Growers Association, adding he expects some results by the end of next week.
The outbreak, which began in April, has affected 943 people so far in 40 U.S. states, more of one-third of them in Texas, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said. There have been 225 cases reported since June 1 – evidence the source likely has not been contained.
The U.S. tomato industry has taken a $100-million hit as restaurants temporarily dropped tomatoes from their menus and farmers have had to plow under their fields or leave crops to rot in packinghouses.
Mexico has not calculated its losses. But growers worry they still may be under a shadow of suspicion as late as November, when greenhouses harvest their summer tomatoes.
The FDA said recently it is now looking at cilantro and jalapeno and serrano peppers as possible sources of the outbreak, ingredients used to make salsa. Tomatoes remain under investigation, as well.
Salmonella can be transmitted to humans when fecal material from animals or humans contaminates food. Fever, diarrhea and abdominal cramps typically start eight to 48 hours after infection and can last a week. Many people recover without treatment. But severe infection and death are possible. At least 130 people have been taken to hospital in this outbreak, the CDC says.
FDA inspectors wouldn’t speak at the Bonanza 2001 farm, one of 15 in Jalisco state that export to the United States.
As they reviewed the packing plant, workers in aprons, hair nets and plastic gloves cleaned and packed the last tomato harvest to be shipped to the company’s warehouse in Pharr, Texas.
Bonanza has about 60 hectares of greenhouse tomatoes in a lush valley near Jalisco’s southern coast, an area shared by several U.S.-owned tomato-growing companies, including San Antonio-based Desert Glory, North America’s largest grower of greenhouse tomatoes.
Jalisco state agriculture official Martin Figueroa said FDA inspectors visited only Bonanza but left open the possibility of returning.
In Sinaloa, which grows about 40 per cent of all tomatoes sent to the United States, they checked full operations – including irrigation methods – at four farms, Tarriba said.
Sinaloa state wrapped up its winter harvest in June. Farmers now are cleaning their greenhouses and waiting for U.S. clearance before planting more tomatoes. They also are asking Mexican and U.S. authorities to come up with a binational certification program that would establish the same sanitation standards at every agricultural producer in Mexico, Tarriba said.
Currently, private U.S. certification companies check sanitation standards in Mexico.
He said once Sinaloa is cleared, the state will launch a damage-control ad campaign in the United States.
“We have to gain back the consumers’ trust,” Tarriba said.
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