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U.S. salmonella probe angers Mexican tomato producers

June 17, 2008|Marla Dickerson | Times Staff Writer

MEXICO CITY — Farmers are mad enough to throw, well, rotten tomatoes at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which is focusing heavily on Mexico as a potential source of the fruit that has sickened hundreds of people in the United States with salmonella.

Mexican tomatoes are putrefying in warehouses south of the border. Producers say they're losing millions of dollars in export sales even though U.S. health officials haven't discovered the pathogen in any of the Mexican samples they've tested.

"This situation is terrible," said Antonio Ruiz, general manager of Agricola Caborita, a firm in the western state of Sinaloa that sells tomatoes to the American market. "We have hundreds of canceled orders. . . . We're worried and angry because we know that our product isn't to blame, yet we're paying the consequences."

The FDA advised U.S. consumers a little more than a week ago to avoid eating raw red plum, red Roma or round red tomatoes. Mexico is a major supplier of those varieties to the U.S. market, exporting about 800,000 tons to its neighbor last year, according to Mexico's agriculture secretariat.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, June 18, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction
Mexican tomatoes: The photo caption with an article in Tuesday's Section A about Mexican tomato producers angered by a U.S. salmonella inquiry referred to the U.S. Department of Agriculture as the agency conducting the probe. In fact, it is the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The FDA said last week that it was focusing its investigation on Mexico and central and southern Florida, which provided the bulk of America's tomatoes in April, when the first salmonella cases appeared.

The FDA has not banned imports of Mexican tomatoes. In fact tomatoes grown in the northern Mexican state of Baja California appear on the agency's "safe list" of regions whose fruit U.S. officials have determined is not tainted. Baja tomatoes weren't being harvested at the time of the outbreak.

But Mexican producers say the exclusion of all other major Mexican growing regions from the safe list has crippled sales. They say U.S. customers are steering clear of all Mexican tomatoes until the FDA can give the nation a clean bill of health.

Ignacio Aguilar, owner of Nacho's Wholesale Produce in Los Angeles, said tomato sales had plunged 70% since last week. Buyers don't even want tomatoes from Baja.

"They don't want to take any chances," he said. "They're afraid that people might get sick."

Salmonella is an organism that can cause serious and sometimes fatal infections in young children, the elderly and people with weakened immune systems. Healthy people hit with the pathogen often experience fever, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain.

U.S. heath officials said at a news conference Monday that they were continuing to focus on a cluster of nine salmonella cases from one region of the U.S. that they believe to be linked to the same type of tomato. The officials would not say where that outbreak occurred, but last week had said nine people who were sickened had eaten at two outlets of an unspecified chain restaurant. Nor could they say how long it might take to track the suspect tomatoes to their source.

In the meantime, they advised consumers to eat only tomatoes from places on the FDA's list of safe areas.

Many Mexicans view the U.S. action as unfair and potentially crippling to their country's $1-billion tomato export industry. The nation's health authorities have reported no similar outbreak of salmonella.

Still, Mexican food products have been linked to other high-profile incidents of illness in the U.S. Mexican green onions were the source for a 2003 outbreak of hepatitis A at the Chi-Chi's restaurant chain that resulted in at least four deaths and more than 600 illnesses in 13 states. The chain was hit with hundreds of lawsuits and ceased operating in 2004.

The FDA temporarily banned imports of Mexican cantaloupe in 2002 after it concluded that the melons were the source of four salmonella outbreaks that killed two people and hospitalized at least 18 in the U.S. In 2004, the FDA found lead contamination in some Mexican candies.

The upside for Mexican consumers is that prices have fallen as tomatoes once destined for export are now flooding the local market. Fruit that had been selling for as much as $1.16 a kilogram (2.2 pounds) is now going for as little as 48 cents, according to Himelda Santos Cruz, a vendor at Mexico's largest wholesale market.

Santos said that's been good for her business, but bad for Mexico's pride.

"Mexican products are of excellent quality," she said. "The gringos want to do harm to the Mexican producers. Surely they're scrutinizing our products more than others."

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marla.dickerson@latimes.com

Cecilia Sanchez of The Times' Mexico City Bureau contributed to this report.

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