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SPECIAL EDITION IV:
Salmonella/Tomato Crisis
Creates Collateral Damage

FPAA Trying To Clear Baja

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, June 12, 2008

As soon as we ran FDA Adds 19 Florida Counties to “Safe” List, we knew that everyone’s attention would switch to Mexico. So we analyzed the situation in a piece called Andrew & Williamson Hit Hard By FDA’s Mexican Tomato Ban and issued a clarion call to Free Baja.

Now we wanted to learn more about the current status of efforts to get the FDA to extend newly producing areas in Mexico the same status it extended to such areas in Florida. We asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to find out more:

Allison Moore
Communications Director
Fresh Produce Association of the Americas
Nogales, Arizona

Q: What actions have you taken as advocates of Mexican growers and shippers?

A: Right now we’re still in a holding pattern to hear FDA identify the source of the tomato outbreak. With the alert the way it is and no source identified, a lot of people are left in limbo, just waiting to know what to do. With production started and not being able to ship and sell in the U.S., we’re trying to coordinate all efforts to find a mechanism in Mexico to satisfy the FDA to add areas to the list.

Q: What do you mean by mechanism?

A: We’re coordinating with the Mexican government, making sure they’re in touch with FDA and trying to get FDA to respond to them as quickly as possible. What is the mechanism needed to make FDA comfortable to release the states and regions in Mexico that weren’t in production at the time of the outbreak?

I don’t propose to understand all the thinking and negotiations that go on behind the scenes. We are asking FDA: What do you need to know specifically to say you feel comfortable in the safety of our products to allow us to ship?

We’re compiling documentation and trying to leverage existing trade practices. This is the way we can identify where the grower is located, if the state was in production, and working as an industry with the Mexican government. We are trying to assess how the system can be modified, so FDA can now say, “We feel comfortable to release Baja or Northern Sonora or whatever regions are not related to the outbreak. Where do we stand now, how is this on you comfort level scale?”

Q: What is FDA saying as the reason that Baja is not on the approved source list?

A: We haven’t gotten an industry-specific reason. They would want something like what we’re seeing out Florida, certifications assuring product is coming out of those 19 counties.

Q: Why can’t the FDA institute a similar protocol for Mexican growers in the unaffected regions? It seems like a double standard is taking place.

A: I don’t know if it will be a certificate, or if what we are putting on the paperwork to comply with FDA and the Bioterrorism Act to cross the border ends up being sufficient. It may require we need this certificate or some form of extra assurance. FDA and the Mexican government have to hammer that out.

I hear the heartache from growers stuck in Baja and other states and regions unrelated to the outbreak. They are at a loss, saying, what do we do? Do I pick tomatoes and hold them at the farm, do I ship and hope in the next few days I’ll have customers that will buy? We are searching for that mechanism to allow them to ship in a few days.

It’s difficult to talk to people who say they don’t know what to do with production loads they have. All I can tell them is, sit on it, hold it, or decide if it is something you want to turn around and send back. This brings challenging questions to the way to proceed with operations.

FDA is working on the trace back; sure it’s frustrating to spend many hours and not have something concrete.

Q: Do you believe the FDA at this point understands the production process and logistics in Mexico enough to know that Baja could not be part of the problem?

A: Most likely they do. It’s not a question of Baja being implicated. FDA wants to be sure product coming into the U.S. is from that specific area.

The rub to it all is that if we had a specific source in a faster timeframe, an entire industry would be saved and we could assess what we learned from this moving forward.

Q: And what are the key lessons?

A: Long-term, it’s important to have processes established so when something like this occurs, we know what’s expected. In the event of x, we need to do y and z to make sure these shippers can move product. Our supply chain is complex and varied and there needs to be a way to communicate that. We need to have more specific alerts to more specific regions and not just blanket statements across countries.

Updating lists everyday as information comes in is better than nothing but not ideal. The list has to be known as a transparent process for everybody. The list on one side isn’t the ideal thing. The ideal is faster trace back to the source. FDA wants to keep tomatoes in the supply chain for consumers to eat. They don’t want the industry to disappear for three months, and then all at once it’s fine because production has changed so the problem has gone away.

Keeping as many tomatoes out there as possible is a good thing, having some idea these tomatoes aren’t part of problem. We do want to keep the supply chain and the market moving.

Q: What is your projection on how quickly this ban on Mexico will be lifted and regions in unrelated production areas will be free to ship product?

A: The way things are now, we are helping to coordinate talks with the Mexican government on our side. We don’t believe we’ll see anything imminent. I know they’re working on doing something similar to what’s happening with Florida.

Q: Could you provide a timeline of when the Mexican government and organizations like FPAA began advocating to the FDA on behalf of the country’s growers/shippers?

A: What we tried to do initially as an industry was get feedback on production areas in Mexico, discussing the issue of Baja seemed the obvious first step because it has similar production to California. They’re a neighbor, they’re close, it’s not complicated to explain, it’s a no-brainer. We went with that approach as a start, even though it didn’t include other areas that we knew couldn’t have been related to the outbreak either.

Q: It sounds like your strategy was well-thought-out. Yet your efforts at least to this point have turned out to be futile. What else can you do?

A: Unfortunately, Baja didn’t have an exemption when the list got made. We worked through the Baja government last week to send in a request as well.

The timeline is this: we had provided FDA on Thursday, May 29, some information on production in Mexico and brought up the issue of Baja, California, the northern state. In looking at wanting something clear and concise, it would be obvious to distinguish North Baja as an entire state; it’s easier than saying this part of this state or region. We were just focused on production in that state, although people in the central part of the Peninsula were also affected. Along with that, we provided information on the industry of Mexico in general to help FDA understand.

After this, the governor of Baja sent a follow-up letter to the FDA on June 7, giving an official production picture in Baja north and requesting a way to get Baja, the northern state, exempt. Let’s not make it too complicated. FDA is also diverting a lot of effort into completing its trace back. A part of our intention was to give them space and time to complete the trace back, our number one goal. Whether on the list or not, we want to know what we’re dealing with.

Q: The list of approved sources has become quite cumbersome, including states and countries that aren’t even producing tomatoes at this time. Some people think it would have been more simplistic and easier for consumers to grasp if FDA took the opposite approach; telling consumers it is investigating areas of Mexico and Florida as potential sources of the problem, while exempting certain regions, and every other place is fine.

A: For us, it’s better to have a list of approved places. We don’t want to get into a guessing game of, it could have happened here in Mexico or there in Florida. This is a known OK, versus an unknown. For us, the ideal would be that we don’t have lists at all, but trace back happens so quickly we don’t have this lag time.

Q: Where do you go from here?

A: It’s a matter of openly sitting down with industry, determining what are best practices that can be implemented for FDA to review documents, and create common terms that everyone understands. What can we do better between government and industry that might help us? We’re all in the public health business. Our ultimate goal is to have improved pubic health, where the public consumes lots of fresh fruits and vegetables we insure are safe. It behooves us all to figure out where the process broke down and what can we do to fix it.

People feel frustrated that Florida is on the list and Mexico is not. What do we need to do better? We’re in a complex situation. How do we react to what we know and what is going on. FDA is not a faceless organization. It’s filled with people that ultimately want to fix this problem too. I see growers and shippers frustrated. I see people doing the right thing, spending resources, time and money to know the latest science and implement it, and integrating food safety as part of the culture on the farm.

Q: As communications director, how do you disseminate this message to the outside world and defuse the food safety hysteria in the marketplace?

A: We need to get this message out but don’t want to add to the static and confusion in the media. We haven’t put releases out, but we let the members know what’s going on best we can, we just don’t know the specifics. It’s complicated to talk to consumers.

Media likes packaged information, a few sound bites. A lot of times when information is more complicated then a few sound bites, they get it wrong. We’re kind of where we were at the end of last week. We still don’t know our fate.

We have been very encouraged about the level of involvement in this issue by the Mexican Department of Agriculture and the Mexican Department of Commerce and think that today we are in a good place moving forward with the two governments. There are people from Nogales in Mexico City as we speak offering any industry assistance we can give moving forward. It is crucial for us that the two governments are talking, and I believe that is happening now. We just need to keep up the momentum now to move forward.

As we mentioned here, we think this is primarily an issue of distrust between FDA and Mexican authorities. FDA is in a tough spot, afraid that corruption in Mexico will taint the legitimacy of any Certificates of Origin — not exactly a crazy notion — but also afraid to speak out and turn the salmonella/tomato issue into an international cause célèbre.

Allison is almost plaintative — every minute costs fortunes and she is just not in control.

The need for a predictable process Allison talks about is really a very important issue not just for the produce industry but, really, for the whole country.

What is really wrong with this situation is that it turns upstanding citizens into serfs, pleading with the Lord of the Manor for mercy. The amount of discretion the FDA has is simply incompatible with free men and a free society.

This interview is not earth shattering but it is profoundly disturbing. No citizen should ever have to think himself a supplicant when petitioning government for redress of grievances.

And no honest business man should have his bankruptcy or prosperity hinge on the discretion of an FDA bureaucrat.

Fixing this is every bit as important as fixing food safety.

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