TUCSON — Growers and distributors of imported Mexican produce destined for supermarkets all over the United States are locked in a dispute with the U.S. Department of Agriculture over an increase in quality control inspections at the U.S.-Mexico border.
They fear an increase of inspectors going in and out of multiple produce warehouses in southern Arizona on a daily basis poses a safety risk that could threaten the critical food supply chain during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“USDA is not understanding completely that the inspections that they’re doing are not essential,” Jaime Chamberlain said. He’s the president of the Greater Nogales and Santa Cruz County Port Authority, and the owner of Chamberlain Distributing in Nogales.
“They’re looking for blemishes, they’re looking for differences in color, they’re looking for size differentiations. They’re looking for things that are cosmetic issues,” he said.
The USDA quality inspections are set to rise drastically from 500 a month in March to 13,500 a month by June. The timing coincides with the peak of tomato imports from northern Mexico, recently included on the federal agency’s quality inspection list.
Industry leaders in southern Arizona, one of the key gateways for fresh produce imports, petitioned the USDA for a temporary waiver to the increase in inspections because of risks associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. The USDA denied their petition.
The USDA has not responded to a request for comment. But industry leaders said they were told the inspections are considered essential and will continue increasing in numbers.
Concerns remain over the inspectors and the heightened risk they create, at a time when produce companies have stepped up safety measures to mitigate the risk of exposure to employees in their warehouses and supply chains.
“A single positive test within my facility would shut down the entire facility,” said Matt Mandel, the vice president of finance for SunFed, an Arizona-based distributor that annually imports about 9 million packages of fresh produce from Mexico.
Arizona’s congressional delegation has engaged in the dispute and has echoed the concerns from the produce industry at the state’s border.
The state’s two senators, Democrat Kyrsten Sinema and Republican Martha McSally, joined by all five of Arizona’s House Democrats and two of its four House Republicans — Reps. David Schweikert and Debbie Lesko — have pressed the USDA for answers and action.
In an April 24 letter to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, the two senators and six representatives asked the USDA to provide information by May 8 about the safety protocols the federal agency has in place for inspections at the border.
“As COVID-19 continues to spread in both Arizona and Mexico, we want to ensure steps are taken to protect against and limit potential exposure to the virus during produce inspections,” the letter read.
A second, more strongly worded letter spearheaded by Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., who represents the Nogales border area in Congress, called on the USDA to immediately halt quality inspections of produce at the border.
“This administration listens primarily to Republicans, and they’re there, including the senator (McSally),” Grijalva told The Arizona Republic. “Hopefully, there’ll be some consideration given to the fact that this can’t be labeled as ‘the Democrats want this.’ This is a bipartisan issue. And that potentially gives us an opportunity we wouldn’t have had.”
Timing of extra inspections questioned
The increase in quality inspections at the U.S.-Mexico border are mandated by a suspension agreement targeting fresh tomatoes imported into the U.S. The U.S. government negotiated the deal last year, long before the COVID-19 pandemic. It went into effect in early April.
Allison Moore, the vice president of the Nogales chapter of the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas, said the organization’s members were aware of an increase in inspections and had made necessary preparations.
However, the new coronavirus situation strained the country’s food supply chains and forced stepped-up safety efforts. Moore questioned the timing for the increase in inspections.
“It’s not an issue of wanting to not have an inspection,” she said. “It’s an issue of, today and at this day and time, is that the best use of our resources and time as companies that are trying to send food to the marketplace, and at the same time keep employees safe.”
After the COVID-19 outbreak began, produce companies at the U.S.-Mexico border, such as SunFed in Rio Rico, Arizona, tightened safety rules and protocols to reduce risks of exposure.
Measures include requiring the use of masks and gloves inside the warehouses at all times, conducting more stringent health checks on employees, and reducing the staff size at warehouses at any given time to allow for greater social distancing, Mandel said.
For him, the issue boils down to his company’s ability to manage the working environment of its employees and warehouses, and how more USDA inspectors could disrupt that.
“I can’t guarantee that everyone is taking the same precautions that I am. I’m trying to ensure that my employees stay safe,” Mandel said. “I want to make sure that I’m doing everything that I possibly can. I can’t make sure that everybody is doing the same thing. So that alone makes me worry.”