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Lettuce Ban: Is Mexico Protecting
Health Or Practicing Protectionism?

This morning we were greeted by an announcement that Mexico had banned the import of U.S. lettuce:

In a press statement, the Health Department also said the government had ordered stores to remove U.S. lettuce from their shelves, and urged Mexicans not to consume the imported product, which is often sold here in bag, box and mixed presentations.

The department gave no information on when the temporary ban might be lifted, or why it covered all U.S. lettuce, rather than just the California grower involved in the recall.

“Not one single head of lettuce is going to enter the country from this moment on … no type of lettuce from the United States,” said Luis Alfonso Caso, Mexico’s commissioner of health promotion.

At least from a public safety standpoint, to ban all U.S. lettuce imports made no sense. As we dealt with the subject here, one grower had a small lot of green leaf lettuce that was voluntarily recalled because, maybe, there might have been a problem.

We searched for more answers. Pundit investigator Mira Slott interviewed Erich Kuss, Senior Agricultural Attaché, Embassy of the United States, Mexico:

Q: Could you update us on what is going on with Mexico’s ban on U.S. lettuce?

A: We’re in the same process as you of learning what’s going on. We don’t have full information from the Mexican government. They have stopped lettuce from crossing the border in response to concerns from the recall of lettuce by the Nunes company in California. Yesterday was the announcement from Ministry of Health. We are now working on nailing down how long the ban will last, and what steps are necessary to remove the ban.

Q: Why would Mexico take such a sweeping measure to stop all U.S. lettuce imports?

A: It’s speculation, but with the lettuce recall coming right after the spinach outbreak, the Ministry of Health was probably saying, ‘We better do something. We need to determine what the truth is behind everything.’ It is said to be a protective step, given what’s out there. We’re trying to work out the official explanation and what the U.S. needs to do to end the ban.

Q: Could you elaborate?

A: Part of the worry is that we need to pin down what Salud Mexico needs. That is more difficult in this case. One of the problems here is that we generally deal with the Mexican Government’s Ministry of Agriculture, but this particular ban was put on by the Ministry of Health, which is basically the equivalent of the FDA. It does have jurisdiction to stop imports under this scenario, but it is more difficult for us to take positive actions because we don’t have the contacts and links on a daily basis that we have developed with the Ministry of Agriculture. We are still working on opening up communication with contacts at the Ministry of Health. As we learn more information, we will share it with you.

The easy call would be to say that this ban by Mexico, as with Canada’s continuing refusal to allow entry of U.S. spinach — which we dealt with here — demonstrates the utter lack of coordination between the health authorities in the NAFTA nations. There is a lot to that and our U.S. trade associations should certainly set up a meeting with FDA to discuss how this situation can be improved.

But one senses there is more to it than this. Are Canada and Mexico using the situation to erect non-tariff trade barriers to U.S. produce?

My prediction: The Canadian ban will disappear just about the time the frost kills the Canadian spinach crop and so the political support for the ban will evaporate. Mexico isn’t a big importer of lettuce, mostly growing its own, except certain key chains, such as H.E. Butt and Wal-Mart, ship U.S. lettuce into Mexico.

Mexican growers would like these U.S.-based chains to buy Mexican-grown product. The banning of U.S. lettuce, irrational from a public health standpoint, is a perfectly rational strategy from a protectionist viewpoint.

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