FDA destroying business on both sides of border

Serrano Peppers

And no closer to a cause for the Salmonella SaintPaul outbreak

McALLEN — The Food and Drug Administration’s attempt to target a source for the nationwide salmonella outbreak has effectively shut down Texas border tomato traffic — and that of cilantro, jalapeños, other peppers and other produce — even as tainted ones have yet to be found in Mexico.

Industry losses, estimated at $250 million for the initially implicated tomatoes alone, are mounting as the FDA widens its probe. The standstill at the border is spreading through a distribution chain that reaches from the fields of Coahuila, Mexico, to wholesale markets in cities such as Atlanta and Chicago.

It’s evident in the rows of packing sheds here that normally bustle this time of year with northbound shipments of tomatoes and peppers.

Cold storage rooms stand empty. Conveyer belts are still. Owners pace their bare warehouses fielding cell phone calls — from their customs brokers for word on whether they can move what rapidly perishing product they still have to their buyers to tell them, “Not yet.”

Workers idle, wondering how long they’ll have jobs.

“I’ve got almost one month without doing nothing and losing our sales,” said Abraham Dajlala of GR Produce. “If we cross one load of jalapeños right now the FDA takes eight to 10 days to give you the (test) results. By that time it’s too late. I’ve got jalapeños in Mexico right now, waiting in the fields.”

In Texas, the main routes for imported Mexican produce funnel through the Pharr-Reynosa International Bridge east of McAllen, where trucks are routinely inspected before heading to unload in border packing sheds.

As the rare strain of salmonella Saintpaul that began sickening people in April began showing up in more and more states, and more and more people were asked what they ate, the detective work by the FDA and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention extended to fields and distribution spots across the nation.

As of Saturday, 1,065 people in 42 states, the District of Columbia and Canada had gotten ill. The deaths of an elderly Texas man and another Texan who died of cancer but had contracted salmonella were associated with the outbreak.

Last week, FDA inspectors were dispatched to Mexico, where they spent several days inspecting fields, equipment and water sources.

And at the border, they have been taking samples from truckloads of tomatoes, peppers and cilantro. The FDA says it takes three to four days to clear a sample and that during that time the product can be moved to its final destination but not sold for consumption.

But the importers won’t risk moving anything across the country only to find it’s a suspect load they’ll have to recall. And with weekends and holidays such as July Fourth, they say the average wait has been more like eight to 10 days.

So most are telling their Mexican producers to keep the product home.

Decay starts as soon as the chiles are cut from the plant, so there’s some hope of delaying the harvest until the FDA declares the batch safe. But importers know that could also lead to a mad dash for the border, backups at the bridge and a saturated market.

Jim Prevor, editor of Produce Business magazine and the Web site perishablepundit.com, thinks the FDA probe is at this point doing more harm than good.

CDC statistics show 1.4 million cases of salmonella poisoning a year, and attempts to trace a contaminated product may not begin until a week or longer after it was consumed.

The produce now being tested form the ingredients for salsa, but officials cannot say salsa, or any particular food, is the culprit.

With tomatoes, Mexican and U.S. states were listed as OK once they were cleared by the FDA; that hasn’t been the case with peppers or cilantro. What’s most frustrating to the industry is that the search has been so wide and so fruitless.

“Basically, the FDA is acting in such a way that thousands and thousands of farmers are victims, and they’ve done nothing wrong,” Prevor said. “It’s not really helping public health, either. It would be one thing if they were really saving countless lives, doing wonderful things, but the risks are so small, the cause of the problem so uncertain, that this is really very unfair.”

Spokesmen for the FDA and CDC refused to say how many inspectors are on the border, what kind of testing is being done, what questions were being asked of those who have gotten sick or what percentage of cases could have involved a restaurant meal.

On a conference call with reporters Thursday, FDA official Dr. David Acheson described how the detective work had taken officials from suspecting tomatoes to broadening their work to peppers and cilantro.

“It’s just been a spectacularly complicated and prolonged outbreak,” he said. “We’ve pursued all the usual angles, used all the tools, multiple times. … And we’re not there.”

The information about tomatoes and jalapeños came from two studies that neither implicated one nor ruled out another.

“We are quite sure that neither tomatoes nor jalapeños explains the entire outbreak,” the CDC’s Dr. Robert Tauxe said. “We’re presuming that both of them have caused illnesses.”

John McClung of the Texas Produce Association, who is a former food safety inspector, said the industry recognized the challenge facing the FDA but thought the methodology was flawed and outdated.

“As they become more and more desirous of pinning this tail on some donkey or another, they spread their net wider and wider, which means they are less likely to get results and more likely to get commodities damaged in the process,” he said.

Mexican officials say the FDA has unfairly crippled their tomato business, and Friday they declared that the country’s crop was clean. Two states, Jalisco and Sinaloa, have not been cleared by the FDA; they account for 40 percent of the exports. Mexican officials say they have tested and proved the product safe.

“It’s not possible to accept that the tomato is the cause of infection,” a statement from the Agriculture Ministry said. “The scientific evidence clearly shows that the Mexican tomato has no responsibility in the unfortunate public health problem in the United States.”

Mexican officials, the statement said, were demanding the FDA recognize that evidence.

Dajlala, the McAllen importer, said he visits his growers in Mexico and has seen that their operations are pristine and state of the art. “It’s unbelievable, better than here. I think the problem is not the grower. Believe me, it’s not the grower.”

In another packing shed a few rows down, Raúl Treviño of ELC General Produce waited anxiously Friday afternoon for word that tests were OK and he could move about $20,000 worth of jalapeños. They had been sitting in his walk-in cooler since Monday, and some were beginning to turn orange, a sign they were spoiling.

He said he has been working with the FDA and was an “open book” but had told representatives he couldn’t hold out much longer.

“I tell them, ‘You know what? I’m going to be out of business soon,’” he said.