Tomatoes

Mexican tomatoes at the GVS Produce warehouse in Nogales.

Just as the local produce import season begins ramping up for the busy winter season, U.S. Customs and Border Protection announced increased inspections on imported tomatoes and peppers at U.S. ports of entry beginning Friday as part of an effort to protect the domestic industry from tomato brown rugose fruit virus.

The virus can cause severe fruit loss in tomatoes and peppers, CBP said in a news release issued Tuesday, and is easily spread through the use of contaminated tools, hands and plant-to-plant contact.

As per a federal order issued by the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), all tomato and pepper fruit commercial shipments imported from Mexico, Israel, Canada and the Netherlands will have to be inspected and certified free of disease symptoms. All imported tomato and pepper seed lots, along with other propagative plant materials, will also have to be tested and/or certified free of the disease.

More than $500 million of Mexican tomatoes enter the United States annually through local ports of entry, and the Nogales-based Fresh Produce Association of the Americas said in a news release that it is working with the USDA to minimize any delays or negative business impacts from the inspections.

“Tomato and pepper supplies should remain robust as producers throughout Mexico begin to harvest their winter crops,” the FPAA said.

The USDA and corresponding agencies in Mexico and Canada have been coordinating for several weeks on an integrated approach to the issue, FPAA president Lance Jungmeyer said, adding that his organization supports a science-based approach to the problem that’s based on “verifiable, transparent data and methodology.”

“Along with the regulatory agencies, the industry looks forward to learning how we all can help stop this plant disease,” he said in the news release.

The heightened inspections come on the heels of a tense summer for local produce importers, who saw the United States and Mexico draft a new agreement on Mexican tomato imports after U.S. producers accused growers south of the border of “dumping” their product in the domestic market.

The new Tomato Suspension Agreement brings tighter inspection rules of its own, while also raising the minimum prices for imported tomatoes.

In a news release issued after a draft agreement was reached in August, the FPAA said it was “profoundly concerned” about the new inspection rules and complained that parts of the new deal could create “a non-tariff trade barrier” that would drive up prices and hurt importers’ business.

In its announcement Tuesday regarding tomato brown rugose fruit virus, CBP said APHIS is also prohibiting the importation of all fresh tomato and fresh pepper fruits of any variety from all countries of origin in passenger baggage.

According to CBP, the virus was first reported in tomatoes in Israel in 2014. Since then, it has been reported in China, Mexico, Germany (where it has since been eradicated), Italy, Greece, the United Kingdom, Jordan, Turkey and the Netherlands. The virus was detected and eradicated from a California tomato greenhouse in 2018.

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