NOGALES, Ariz. -- The Food and Drug Administration last week approved another Mexican cantaloupe grower to ship product to the United States, giving retailers here an additional, close-by source as melon season begins.
Since the FDA banned all cantaloupe imports from Mexico in October 2002, following salmonella outbreaks, this makes only the fourth Mexican grower to get FDA certification, clearing it to ship to the United States. A Mexican processing plant, too, has obtained certification.
"This [most recent certification by the FDA] gives retailers here another avenue for sourcing product from a grower that has FDA recognition," said Allison Moore, communications director, at Fresh Produce Association of the Americas, headquartered here.
"This is a source [retailers in the United States] had been using for over 20 years [prior to FDA's 2002 import alert which effectively barred the importation of Mexican cantaloupe into the United States], and now it's available to them again. It's another back-up for them to ensure they have what they need to provide the consumer with."
The grower getting FDA's OK last week was Giadela S.P.R. de R.L. in Hermosillo, Sonora, Mexico, a relatively small grower in partnership with U.S. sales agency Vandervoet & Associates. FPAA's Moore, however, indicated that several other growers in the pipeline now are on the verge of gaining FDA clearance. She pointed out that completing and filing the paperwork needed to get cleared is a difficult, and often discouraging, process.
"While most of these Mexican growers have the most advanced food safety systems available in place, it's often just a matter of getting everything on paper the way the FDA wants to see it on paper. It's a back-and-forth process. It's the paperwork hurdles. Hopefully, moving forward with this memorandum of understanding between Mexico and U.S., it will become more streamlined and it will become transparent so people will know exactly what they have to do [to get FDA certification]," FPAA's Moore said.
Moore referred to the Federal Recognition Program, a legal agreement between the FDA and the Mexican Department of Agriculture and other relevant Mexican agencies. At this point, the agreement is awaiting signatures from both sides after the document has been reviewed.
While there are four Mexican growers in the queue right now who have begun the process to get FDA certification, most -- in fact, nearly 100 others -- are awaiting the signing of the Federal Recognition Program, which outlines clear guidelines and procedures for individual growers to follow to get the import ban lifted from them, Moore said.
She added that retailers in this country have much to gain from having a more abundant source of cantaloupe imported from Mexico. Just the proximity of the country to the United States ensures that imported fruits will be more mature, and thus have more flavor, she said.
Without attributing it directly to the import alert, Moore pointed to the fact that cantaloupe consumption in the United States was down three-tenths of a pound last year.
"That may not sound like a lot, but when you counted the number of people in this country, it could amount to 87 million pounds of lost sales last year. There could have been a lot of factors involved, but this could have been one of them. Flavor might have been a factor."
With retailers here relying increasingly on imported produce to give their customers products they want year-round, the FDA's import alert banning cantaloupes from Mexico came as a surprise to the industry. According to federal officials at the time, the ban was based on salmonella outbreaks in the American Southwest that were traced back to the Mexican-grown melon.
Moore and others, however, including officials at Scientific Certification Systems, San Francisco, have pointed out that studies -- including one conducted earlier by the FDA -- show that the incidence of salmonella contamination is very similar when domestic cantaloupes are compared with Mexican-grown cantaloupes.