- The Washington Times - Friday, June 13, 2008

MEXICO CITY - Mexican growers and their government called a U.S. warning against certain types of their tomatoes unjust, saying it has brought exports to a halt and could cripple Mexico’s $900 million industry.

Growers said their produce is subject to double the scrutiny that U.S. tomatoes face: inspected first by Mexican officials and then again at the border when crossing into the U.S.

The toll from salmonella-tainted tomatoes jumped to 228 illnesses Thursday, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has learned of five dozen previously unknown cases and says it is possible that food poisoning contributed to the death of a cancer patient in Texas.

Six states that had escaped the outbreak so far have been added to the list - Florida, Georgia, Missouri, New York, Tennessee and Vermont - bringing the number of affected states to 23.

But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration hasn’t pinpointed the source of the outbreak. The FDA cleared imports from at least six countries - but not Mexico, which sends 80 percent of its tomato exports to the United States.

“This action, which has no scientific basis, is excluding exports of Mexican tomatoes from the U.S. market,” Mexico’s Agriculture Department said. “The FDA’s unjust action is causing severe damage to Mexico’s tomato industry, which provides thousands of jobs.”

Mexican tomato growers say exports have come to a halt.

“We can’t sell a single box of tomatoes,” said Jesus Macias, sales manager at the Productora Agricola Industrial del Noreste in the border state of Baja California.

His farm normally ships up to 50,000 boxes of tomatoes a day to an importer in Chula Vista, Calif. - until it stopped buying his produce last week. Mr. Macias plans to give his 3,000 laborers an extra day off each week to cut costs as long as the slump continues.

Baja California began its harvest in April and be would the hardest-hit state if the U.S. salmonella scare continues to stem sales.

Mr. Macias said he used to sell each 26-pound box of tomatoes for $15 in the U.S., but now must sell them in Mexico, where a glut of unexported tomatoes is flooding the market and pushing prices as low as $5 a box.

U.S. health officials have presented no proof that the contaminated tomatoes are from Mexico, said Manuel Tarriba, head of the Sinaloa state Tomato Growers Association. No salmonella has been reported in Sinaloa state, Mexico’s top tomato-producing region, he told Mexico’s state news agency, Notimex.

“Even if Mexico isn’t the culprit, the industry has already been affected. We need to change that, because when you send an alarm to consumers, the first thing they do is stop buying,” he said.

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