Mexico focuses on food safety to overcome U.S. fears

GUADALAJARA, Mexico - Produce-related health scares can have the power to remove a whole category or variety from grocery retail shelves, as Mexico's once-thriving cantaloupe sector can attest.

Salmonella-contaminated melons from Mexico were linked to two deaths in the U.S. and multiple illnesses in the U.S. and Canada in 2001-02. The result, former president of certification body Mexico Calidad Suprema, Juan Laborín, is that production for a once-significant export for the country is now effectively zero. The damage from this and other health scares has been major and long-term, raising questions in the mind of U.S. consumers about the safety of Mexican produce as a whole, said Laborin, who is general director of the association of table grape exporters for Sonora. Laborin and representatives of produce companies from Mexican and the U.S. were in Guadalajara for the annual Expo ANTAD y Alimentaria show March 7-9.

Safety focus

Faced with such challenges, Mexico's national and regional authorities are focusing increasing resources on improving certification compliance and food safety standards among the country's countless small growers through the department of agriculture (SAGARPA) and related organizations. One such organization, largely funded by SAGARPA, is Mexico Calidad Suprema, which is dedicated to improving food safety standards across the country, according to managing director Liz Quintero.

"We help producers with technical assistance and training on how to comply with the food safety certifications that export markets demand," she said. "Food safety is an incredibly important subject for Mexican exporters hoping to work with the U.S., especially with the implementation of the FDA's Food Safety Modernization Act, and we are working on a very timely strategy for small growers."

Outlining the task that the organization faces, Quintero used avocados as an example. Around 70% of total exports are sourced from growers who farm less have 50 hectares (about 125 acres). In the case of mangoes, 90% of growers in Mexico are small producers.

Quintero says Mexico Calidad Suprema is focusing on helping these small-scale producers comply with recognized certifications through training and technical assistance, with a goal to meet not only Mexico's own Senasica food safety standards, but those recognized in other countries and globally.

"We're focusing on ensuring small growers comply with national and international certifications - GlobalGAP, SQF, PrimusLabs, whatever the client asks for," she said.

To achieve this, Mexico Calidad Suprema launched its own certification - MexicoGAP - in conjunction with GlobalGAP in 2008, which is aimed at making sure Mexican exporters comply with the full range of worldwide standards. In fact, Quintero estimates that Mexico Calidad Suprema now works with growers covering about 55% of the fruits and vegetables produced in Mexico.

"We have been advancing a great deal with the implementation of certifications among small producers - the big ones comply with everything, but at times they will turn to smaller growers when they have a cargo to fill and that's where we have an opportunity," she said.

Regional initiatives

However, such initiatives are not only taking place at a national level. Guanajuato Zona Premium (Guanajuato Premium Zone) is a two-year-old project funded by the central state of Guanajuato which is focused on promoting growers and packers who are fully food safety certified. Once known for its strawberry production, Guanajuato is now better known for its vegetable exports, especially broccoli to the U.S., according to program chief Fabian Vázquez. Although guarantees of food safety are central to the initiative, Vázquez emphasizes that product quality also plays a key role, while participating growers are also required to comply with social and environmental certifications.

"Guanajuato Zona Premium is an area that the government of Guanajuato has designated that guarantees that growers who gain the certificate comply with food safety, social and environmental standards," he said.

Currently, the program has 350 growers and packers registered and Vázquez said that increases daily among the region's broccoli, carrot, asparagus and salad exporters.

Ángel González Méndez, food and beverage director of Guanajuato's Office for the Development of External Trade, which is also involved in the program, said the initiative is putting in place standards far stricter than those typically applied in Mexico in order to able to reach as many potential markets as possible. That's not just to the U.S., but also to Russia, Japan and South Korea.

"We're aiming to meet the demands of buyers, not politicians," he said.