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Market Scene : Mole Overcoming Chilly Reception : Mexico's sauce makers are changing their ways to pass FDA standards and sell to the United States. It's typical of a quiet revolution.


LA PAZ, Mexico — Nachos and fajitas may pass for Mexican cuisine in the United States, but the real national dish is mole , a spicy sauce with as many variations as there are cooks.

The only guidelines for defining mole (pronounced MO-lay)--which may be black, green, pumpkin orange or a rich brown--are that it has to have lots of ingredients and take forever to make. So naturally, modern households opt for a shortcut. Little glass jars of Dona Maria mole base are as much a staple in Mexican kitchens as bottles of barbecue sauce are in U.S. pantries.

The maker of Dona Maria--food processing giant Herdez--has yearned to take advantage of the Mexican and Southwest food craze in the United States to make the product as popular north of the border. But until recently, it faced a major obstacle: the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Dona Maria contained too many insect parts to meet U.S. sanitary standards. So last year, Herdez adjusted the mole- making process to overcome that problem. Now the company is confident that Dona Maria will soon be on U.S. shelves.

If five different shipments can pass FDA tests at the border, Dona Maria will be taken off the agency's alert list--and Herdez will join other pioneering Mexican consumer goods companies that have successfully changed the way they manufacture in order to export to the United States.

So-called "harmonization" of standards has been an important discussion point as U.S., Mexican and Canadian officials try to create a continental free trade zone through the North American Free Trade Agreement. While it's not certain how much of this activity has already taken place, it is clear that entrepreneurs are far ahead of officialdom.

In effect, export-oriented Mexican businesses are making the U.S. rules on product health and safety the standards for North America. As they adapt their products to meet U.S. standards in order to export, all their customers benefit.

Organizacion Altex, Mexico's premier sliced bread and cupcake maker, changed food coloring and flavoring ingredients to enter the U.S. market six years ago.

"We are using more sophisticated packaging that gives the products a longer shelf life," said Roberto Servitje, chief executive officer. "This has helped us to change our processing here in Mexico."

Altex has even bought trucks with shatterproof windows and hired drivers with U.S. licenses to meet U.S. highway regulations, allowing the company to transport goods directly from its northern factories to customers in the United States.

However, in order to export, Servitje has also been forced to make changes that he does not consider beneficial to anyone, such as increasing product liability insurance. "That is money thrown in the trash," he said. "The consumer pays for it."

Despite such drawbacks, larger Mexican companies are eager to do whatever is needed to gain access to a U.S. market three times the size of their domestic customer base. Their eagerness is evidenced by the willingness to modify a product as traditional as mole.

"We had to change the whole process, starting with the growers," said Hector Hernandez Pons, Herdez vice president.

A basic ingredient in Dona Maria mole is chiles anchos , a chili pepper about eight inches long and three inches wide. Herdez buys chilies from farms owned by company shareholders as well as from independent growers--a legacy of the past, when corporations could not own farmland in Mexico.

For the last eight years, Alfredo Fierro has been in charge of about 750 acres of farmland around La Paz, where Herdez chilies are grown.

"The only way to export to the United States is to comply with FDA norms," said agronomist Fierro, who favors Texan cowboy shirts and speaks in the staccato accent of his native Chihuahua. "On the farms that sell to Herdez, we only use FDA-approved chemicals."

Farmers here began worrying about FDA approval on chemicals about the time Fierro arrived--an era when cotton prices dropped and water prices rose, making the traditional crop in this irrigated desert unprofitable. Vegetables, which use less water and bring higher prices than cotton, were the logical alternative.

However, this peninsula is too far away from distribution centers to compete successfully with established horticulture areas. If farmers here want to sell fresh vegetables, they have to export.

"Even if we sell to Japan or Canada, we have to ship through the United States, so we have to comply with FDA norms," said Fierro.

As a result, farms in this area have stopped using systemic chemicals that protect plants by penetrating the roots, stems and leaves to ward off pests, said Dionisio Dominguez, who heads vegetable sanitation in the state of Baja California Sur and is a consultant for Herdez.

The problem with the chemicals is that they also penetrate fruit, leaving residual toxins that caused U.S. health inspectors to turn chilies back at the border.

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