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Protected agriculture group in Mexico sets food-safety and sustainability agenda

Protected agriculture continues to grow in Mexico and now represents a preponderance of horticultural exports to the United States, according to Eric Viramontes, chief executive officer of the Associación Mexicana de Horticultura Protegida A.C., or Mexican Association of Protected Horticulture, headquartered in Culiacan, Sinaloa, and better known by its acronym AMHPAC.

The growers who produce horticultural products for export in protective structures, which range from hoop houses to shadehouses to greenhouses, areEric-ViramontesEric Viramontes aggressive and competitive in terms of their application of modern growing technologies to their production, but they are also proactive with regard to food safety, sustainability and social responsibility, according to Mr. Viramontes.

Many of them are members of AMHPAC, and as an organization, AMHPAC and its membership are focusing strongly on those areas. "We are setting high standards in terms of our membership," not only in terms technology and efficiency but also sustainability and responsibility, he said.

AMHPAC will have a presence at the Produce Marketing Association's Fresh Summit convention in Anaheim, consisting of some grower members as well as staff, and will be talking about "how our industry is being more proactive and more aggressive and more competitive," Mr. Viramontes said. "We are going to be talking about our proactive program" in five specific areas or "levels."

First is a focus on "complying with international food-safety benchmarks" under the Global Food Safety Initiative.

Second is complying with any requirements that come from government agencies at the point of origin and at destination, such as the Food & Drug Administration in the United States and its Mexican counterpart known by the acronym SENESICA.

The third area, Mr. Viramontes said, is participation in the Produce Traceability Initiative, "where our members have to incorporate into their production good traceability systems according to the international initiative."

The fourth area of focus is to "promote and certify social responsibility within our operations," he said.

"Level five of our program is actually talking about the accountability of a grower, where not only are we going to promote the third-party certification systems" with inspectors coming at least twice yearly "to do an official certification," but members will also do a monthly self audit and make corrections in their operations where indicated just as they would with a third-party audit.

There are other areas the organization is looking at as well, Mr. Viramontes said. One is to become "more efficient in terms of logistics and markets. We have some ideas that we want to present at PMA," and will be looking "for the right match." AMHPAC has in place "a match making program" to try to match up growers with "the right marketers.

"In order for a program to work, it must be dynamic," Mr. Viramontes said. "The current "five levels of the program are not going to be static ... for the next five years," but they will be key areas of focus for the 2012-13 season. "One of the next levels" will be looking at benchmarks and metrics that will allow the organization and its members to "measure our sustainability."

AMHPAC is "a very innovating organization," he said. "We do not want to be reactive to the trends, to the problems, to the issues. I believe that there are several opportunities in terms of making more efficient logistics. We definitely have to look at what is going on at the border" and find ways to "start delivering produce in a more efficient way through more efficient methods."