Lessons Learned in Mexico about Food Safety – And Tomatoes

By: Stephen M. Ostroff, M.D.

En Español

As my colleagues at FDA can attest, I like to grow tomatoes in the summer. I often bring portions of the harvest to the office each week of the growing season. Though the total volume is modest, I still like to think of myself as an environmentally conscious and responsible “farmer.”

Group photo of FDA and Mexico Officials and Tomato Growers

From left to right:
Rafael Ávila Julio Mexico-SENASICA-Branch Chief)
Joaquín Rivera Quiroz (Mexico-SENASICA-International Affairs)
SENASICA staff member
Edmundo Garcia (FDA-Regional Director for Latin America)
Mary Lou Valdez (FDA-Associate Commissioner for International Programs)
Stephen Ostroff (FDA- Acting Commissioner)
Sandra Cruz (FDA- Assistant Regional Director for Latin America)
Silvia Rojas Villegas ( Mexico- SENASICA- Director for Food Safety, Aquaculture, and Fisheries)
Jorge Martínez Lambarry (Mexico- General Director Binatur Invernaderos)
Angel Covarrubias Domínguez (Mexico – SENASICA’s staff)
Selma Koekoek (Food Safety Manager – Binatur Invernaderos).

So I was glad to spend some time on food safety issues last month while in Mexico attending the 10th International Summit of Heads of Medicines Regulatory Agencies. In addition to summit activities, I spent time with FDA staff in our Latin America Office and with our regulatory counterparts in Mexico charged with keeping foods safe. In the process, I gained a new appreciation for the partnership we have with Mexico to enhance food safety and to minimize the potential for contamination of fresh produce.

Which brings me back to tomatoes.

Representatives of the Mexican National Service for Agro-Alimentary Public Health, Safety and Quality (SENASICA) accompanied me and other FDA staff on a tour of Bionatur Invernaderos de Mexico, a state-of-the-art tomato-growing operation located in Jocotitlan Estado de Mexico, about 75 miles outside of Mexico City.

While most people think of growing tomatoes as an activity that requires soil, tomatoes can also grow using an alternative substrate and the addition of water, sunshine, and nutrient solutions. Bionatur Inveraderos is among the largest users of this technology, known as hydroponics, in the world. It’s an enormous, state-of-the-art operation, with eight 25-acre greenhouses on the 200-acre farm. And the results are very impressive, with row after row of enormous plants that dwarf my back-deck efforts.

Hydroponic tomatoes

Rows of tomatoes at Bionatur Invernaderos de Mexico, a state-of-the-art tomato-growing operation located in Jocotitlan Estado de Mexico, about 75 miles outside of Mexico City.

For me, there’s a real value to FDA visiting farms of all kinds to see first-hand the importance growers place on producing safe fruits and vegetables and the pride they have in their work, no matter what the size of the operation. Just as in the United States, produce is grown on all different kinds of farms in Mexico, from those using the latest technology to traditional operations that have been in hard-working families for generations. What the U.S. and Mexico also have in common is our mutual commitment to the safety of produce grown on our nations’ farms, which is especially important as the food supply continues to become more global.

For example, while the United States is a leading producer of tomatoes, Mexico is currently the 10th largest in the world. And in the last decade, tomato trade between the U.S. and Mexico has grown considerably — and is likely to continue to expand as global supply chains further diversify.

In light of these trends, assuring the safety of these imports is paramount. That’s why we work closely with our Mexican food safety counterparts: SENASICA and the Federal Commission for the Protection of Sanitary Risk (also known as COFEPRIS). Last year, our three agencies signed The Produce Safety Partnership, which specifically aims to promote the safety of fresh and minimally processed agricultural products in both countries.

SENASICA has a voluntary Risk Reduction System for Contamination (SRRC) program to ensure that fruits and vegetables grown in Mexico are produced in optimal sanitary conditions to reduce the risk of contamination.

Food safety requires everyone’s participation — including farms, facilities, regulatory agencies, and consumers. As we implement the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), we are working closely with our Mexican regulatory counterparts, as well as other nations and international stakeholders, to make sure that they have the understanding, information, and training necessary to meet these important new food safety standards.

FDA’s Latin America Office, with staff located in San Jose, Costa Rica; Santiago, Chile; and Mexico City, will be instrumental in this FSMA outreach as we rely heavily on the Latin American region to ensure the availability of fresh produce year round.

Two FSMA rules that became final this month are particularly important to Mexican farmers growing produce destined for American consumers. The Produce Safety rule establishes science-based safety standards for both domestic produce farms and those in other countries that export to the U.S. And the Foreign Supplier Verification Programs (FSVP) rule requires importers to ensure that their foreign suppliers meet U. S. safety standards.

It is clear to me that Mexico also shares another quality with the U.S. and other nations: It has the academic capital and capacity to engage in both high tech and traditional farming, and to successfully meet these new safety standards designed to prevent foodborne illness.

While there are differences in our systems, technologies, and environments, the U.S. and Mexico both want consumers to be confident in the safety of their food. By working together, we can achieve that goal.

Stephen M. Ostroff, M.D., is Acting Commissioner of Food and Drugs

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