Following up on our piece Lettuce Ban: Is Mexico Protecting Health Or Practicing Protectionism, which you can read here, Pundit investigator Mira Slott interviewed Lee Frankel, President of the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas — an association of Mexican-produce importers and distributors — to get his take on this perplexing situation in which Mexico is banning imports of all U.S. lettuce:
Q: What’s behind the Mexican ban on U.S. lettuce?
A: This is all coming from the health department, not from the ag department, which could be perceived more political to get even for slights. But it doesn’t seem like it came from that side.
Q: So, there is genuine food safety concern justifying the comprehensive ban?
A: FDA has worked hard to convince the Mexican department of health to consider food safety as a front-burner issue, worthy of significant agency resources. It has gone through putting cantaloupe and seafood regulations in place.
Food safety is starting to infiltrate that culture. From an industry point of view, companies are using identification systems the ag department has developed for mangos and avocados, and to implement those for certain other products for food safety reasons.
Now that the Salud is more involved with some of these things, a little more knowledge can be dangerous, opening a lot more questions. Hopefully something that can be resolved relatively quickly.
Q: You’re saying Salud is giving FDA a taste of its own medicine?
A: FDA has been pushing Mexico to use chemically treated water to make sure bacteria-clean water is used in irrigation even if product is grown on the vine and not in or on ground. Mexican health authorities may be having a revelation that FDA is not asking the same of the U.S. industry. Having to deal with the Salinas outbreaks, and then hearing confirmation of inadequately treated surface water used for irrigation, I imagine the department of health is saying, ‘Time out. Let’s see what’s happening or isn’t happening.’
Q: It sounds like there may be communication gaps.
A: You hit upon a critical problem. It’s been difficult in terms of setting up responsible parties to contact when there is an issue. A cynical view is that the FDA is deliberately talking to the wrong people , but ultimately FDA and Salud, in conjunction with USDA and the Mexican ag department, haven’t set up true communication diagrams to get problems resolved and to understand what’s going on.
Individuals have contacts they may have met at conference , but at the institutional level, even though there are memorandums to exchange information, no one’s done the right work to make sure people have the correct information. I constantly see that. An example of this occurred with the green onion food safety crisis. The information going back and forth from Mexico City and Washington wasn’t congruent with what was actually happening on the ground.
Q: What steps can be taken to improve the disconnects?
A: Mexico is not coordinating things in a timely enough matter and getting information enough in advance to do what FDA does with inspections. We need to get protocols and phytosanitary procedures worked out very quickly. We also need to figure out ways to eliminate rumor and innuendo in 24 hours instead of it festering for two weeks to two months. The industry has been resisting empowering the right authorities and experts to keep us out of these problems.
I think everything Lee says is 100% correct, but I also think that if they didn’t grow lettuce in Mexico and Mexican lettuce farmers weren’t trying to force H.E. Butt and Wal-Mart to buy Mexican, this ban would have never been imposed. Certainly not in this blanket manner.