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California and the West

Mexico's Ban on U.S. Lettuce Yields Anger

Trade groups protest the blocking of shipments after an E. coli-related recall by a Central California farm.

October 12, 2006|Jerry Hirsch | Times Staff Writer

Farm interests from the Salinas Valley to Washington reacted angrily Wednesday to a ban on U.S. lettuce imports by Mexico.

"This is an outrageous step that has no basis at all in science or food safety," said Tom Stenzel, president of the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Assn. in Washington.

The Mexican Ministry of Health on Tuesday blocked U.S. lettuce after the voluntary recall two days earlier by a Central California farm of more than 8,500 cartons of green-leaf lettuce. Nunes Co. of Salinas had recalled the lettuce after discovering E. coli bacteria in irrigation water used on the crop.

Tests found that the contamination was a generic form of E. coli, which is common in water and soil around the world and generally not harmful to humans. A toxic strain of the bacteria had recently contaminated Salinas Valley spinach, sickening nearly 200 people and killing three. None of the recalled lettuce was headed for Mexico.

"The produce industry is being punished for being careful," Stenzel said.

Froylan Gracia, agricultural counselor at the Mexican Embassy in Washington, defended the ban, saying that "countries can take actions that they think safeguard the lives of their citizens even if it seems subjective."

He said regulators from both countries were working to resolve the issue.

But that was of little comfort to Salinas Valley farmers whose business is laboring to rebound from the spinach scare.

"Mexico has just added to our overall woes with consumer perception," said Bob Perkins, executive director of the Monterey County Farm Bureau.

The state's $250-million spinach business "remains really down," he said.

Perkins said growers were reporting that sales of other forms of bagged produce also had dipped, but he could not put a dollar figure on the decline.

If not for the potential effects on the buying habits of American shoppers, the lettuce ban itself should have little economic fallout.

Mexico is not a major buyer of U.S. lettuce, purchasing $8.3 million of the crop last year. California produces $1.7 billion of lettuce a year, with about $1 billion coming from Monterey County.

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jerry.hirsch@latimes.com

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