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NOGALES, AZ — The Arizona Department of Agriculture, which for many years has been subcontracted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to do inspections on produce crossing from Mexico into the United States through Nogales, has announced that its inspectors no longer will go into Mexico to do the inspections.

USDA inspections are mandatory on some commodities, such as tomatoes, and optional on others. While many of the inspections have been done in Arizona in the past, a majority has taken place in Mexico, before the produce crosses the border. That will now no longer be the case, and during the peak of the season, that is "going to have a large impact" on the industry, said Lance Jungmeyer, president of the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas, here.

“For years and years, going back to the '40s,” the Arizona Department of Agriculture has handled the USDA inspections, “and for years they have been going to Mexico to do them,” Mr. Jungmeyer told The Produce News Nov. 8. Then, “just last week, we got a notification from the Arizona Department of Agriculture saying that they will no longer send their inspectors to Mexico.”

The reason cited by the state of Arizona for the decision is a concern for the security and safety of the inspectors in the light of the escalating drug violence in Mexico, and particularly along drug-smuggling corridors, which has, according to various sources, resulted in the deaths of between 27,000 and 30,000 people over the past four years.

“They are worried about the safety of their inspectors, and it is no unfounded concern,” said Mr. Jungmeyer. However, “we do feel it is safe over there. There have not been any incidences involving inspectors.” The shippers and distributors in Nogales “go across the line” as do people involved in “all kinds of businesses,” he said. “So I think our shippers feel safe.” But “the state made the decision, and we have to find a way to work with them.”

Being able to do agricultural inspections on the Mexican side of the border has had “a number of advantages,” he said. “Number one is, your labor costs for loading and unloading the truck are much cheaper over there. Number two is, there is more space over there,” referring to available warehouse space in which to do the inspections. Depending on the product, the warehouse space used for the inspection may need to be refrigerated.

Yet another advantage in doing inspections south of the border is that if for some reason the product “doesn't meet grade, the importer doesn’t need to bear the expense of bringing it across the border,” he said.

While many Nogales companies do have their inspections done stateside, a majority has opted to have inspections in Mexico. Last year, the Arizona Department of Agriculture performed more than 31,000 agricultural inspections on produce crossing the border. Of those, about 11,600 were done on the Arizona side. “That means almost 20,000 [lots] were inspected on the Mexican side,” mainly at facilities located near the Mexican Customs compound that are operated by Mexican government entities.

When a truckload of produce is selected for agricultural inspection, it must be completely unloaded, with two feet of space left between the pallets so that inspectors “can go around and look at it and ascertain the quality and put stamps on the boxes as need be, and that takes up a lot of warehouse space,” he said.

Now that the produce must all come across the border before it is inspected, “our concern is, especially during the peak months,” which are January through April for tomatoes, “there is just not going to be enough warehouse space capacity on this side to really allow the number of inspections that there have been in years past. So everyone here right now is scrambling trying to figure out how we are going to accommodate these inspections on this side,” Mr. Jungmeyer said.

“We are frankly not very happy that they gave us so little notice. If we had known six months ago that they were going to quit doing inspections on the Mexican side, I think there would have been time to either build a warehouse over here that could accommodate the inspections or each shipper could have added to their warehouses,” he said. Instead, the announcement was made just as “the season is getting started,” he said.

“Basically, it is a tough situation,” Mr. Jungmeyer added. He and other members of the association have been meeting with state officials “to try to see what we can do to improve the situation.”

However, Allison Moore, communications director for the association, told The Produce News Nov. 16 that there had been no new developments in the situation in the past week.