Tomatoes

Tomatoes imported from Mexico are inspected at a Nogales warehouse in this file photo from 2011.

The Arizona Department of Agriculture interrupted an inspector training last week in Nogales after a participant went to a hospital to be tested for the coronavirus.

The participant was tested for COVID-19 on the evening of Thursday, March 19, spokesman Robert Smook said. After test results came back negative, the department resumed its days-long training the following Saturday.

“The hospital did check him and he tested negative,” Smook told the NI.

“Once we got the ‘all clear,’ we resumed training,” he said, and only the Friday session was cancelled “for abundance of caution.”

On March 17, Smook said, the participant visited a local urgent care center for allergy- or cold-like symptoms. The person returned to the inspector training after they didn’t display specific symptoms for coronavirus.

But after developing a serious cough on Thursday evening, the person checked into a hospital to be tested for COVID-19 and results showed they were negative.

“Class was cancelled on Friday, then Saturday it was resumed for training,” Smook said, adding that the incident did not affect any inspection operations at the Nogales port of entry.

However, Lance Jungmeyer of the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas said quality inspections at warehouses in Nogales, Ariz. were slightly slower throughout the day Friday.

“For some companies, they were slowed down a little bit,” he said, adding that operations resumed as normal by Saturday morning.

While it turned out to be a false alarm, Jungmeyer said the incident raised concerns about how the inspection process will play out during the fast-approaching busy season for local produce companies.

Inspectors are currently examining about 500 truckloads of imported Mexican produce a month, he said, but that number is expected to increase to up to 5,000 truckloads next month.

“I think the incident highlights flaws in our system when we have issues like COVID going on,” Jungmeyer said, noting that the circumstances would have changed dramatically if an inspector had tested positive for the virus. “All of a sudden, we’d have produce companies and their employees who have to get tested and do the 14-day quarantine, so it’s a very scary environment right now.”

Local produce companies have not laid off any employees as a result of the outbreak, he said, but the FPAA has encouraged implementing precautionary measures, such as limiting warehouse access to third-party visitors, reminding employees of social distancing practices and using shoe covers while inside the facilities.

“We’re used to food safety anyway, but this is a different situation that we’re in,” Jungmeyer said.

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