NOGALES, Ariz. (AP) — The Arizona Department of Agriculture has halted its practice of doing some produce inspections in Mexico, citing concerns for inspectors' safety.
Department director Donald Butler said inspectors have been hassled by Mexican authorities and told they shouldn't be driving vehicles in Mexico that aren't their own, although the inspectors are using vehicles owned by the state of Arizona.
Nogales is the only U.S. port of entry where agriculture inspectors cross the border into Mexico to inspect.
Some Nogales-based produce companies are concerned that Mexican fruit and vegetable exporters will divert their business to other ports of entry because of the inconvenience caused by the ADA's change in policy that took effect Nov. 1.
"Once you move to another location, if things work reasonably well, you may never come back," Jess Driscoll, general manager of Myer Tomato, told the Nogales International.
Officials with Nogales-based Fresh Produce Association of the Americas have met with Butler and requested the inspection policy change be postponed until at least this summer.
"We just feel that after all these years in partnership we deserved more time, more notice that this is a possibility," FPAA president Lance Jungmeyer said. "They should have told us earlier in the year."
Importers are sweating the sudden change because peak produce season runs from January to June, and many tomatoes arrive in December.
Tomatoes are one of the most commonly imported commodities. And along with table grapes, watermelons and avocados are one of four that ADA is required to inspect. There are at least 80 tomato distributors in Nogales, Ariz., Jungmeyer said.
But FPAA officials say most Nogales, Ariz.-based importers don't have space in their warehouses to accommodate the inspections — meaning they would probably have to find more warehouse space in town to rent and, more problematically, bring them up to food safety standards.
For the past 40 years, about two-thirds of tomatoes, table grapes, seedless watermelons, avocados and other U.S.-bound agricultural products were inspected in Nogales, Son., with the remaining third inspected at individual importers' warehouses in Nogales, Ariz.
Inspections could be done in a few central warehouses in Mexico rather than disparate importers' facilities, and produce that fell short of U.S. standards could remain in Mexico to be sold there rather than being trucked back.