Posted: Saturday, April 25, 2015 8:13 pm
BY KRISTEN MOSBRUCKER Staff Writer
About 90 percent all of the mangoes consumed in the United States are imported.
And as they move through the supply chain, food safety requires vigilance to avoid contamination that can make customers sick, said organizers of the National Mango Board during its annual industry meeting last week.
“You can have a state of the art warehouse and still have this,” Sergio Nieto-Montenegro, a food safety consultant, said Thursday, pointing to a photo of an air conditioning unit leaking unto the floor of a cold storage warehouse.
About a dozen local business owners leaned in during the presentation looking to keep their operations up to date during quality inspections.
During the course of one shift, workers can accidently put a pallet of fruit under the unit, even temporarily during packing or re-packing, exposing it to possible bacteria like listeria monocytogenes.
Consuming that bacterium can cause listeriosis, an infection that may include fever, nausea, muscle aches and diarrhea — the same illness behind the controversy that has caused Brenham, Texas-based Blue Bell Ice Cream to pull its products from store shelves.
Most healthy people many not experience any symptoms but those with compromised immune systems and pregnant women can become seriously ill.
“But you can avoid it by having a walkthrough every morning,” Nieto-Montenegro said.
San Francisco-based Pacific Organic Produce recalled a number of cases of fresh organic mangoes in May 2014 for possible listeria contamination.
The last major crisis in the mango industry was back in 2012 when Agricola Daniella brand mangoes grown in Mexico were recalled because of the possible presence of salmonella, another common food-borne illness that causes diarrhea, fever, chills and vomiting.
Those at the greatest risk have died from the bacteria. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported more than 100 people were ill across 16 states and 25 hospitalized. There were dozens of individuals sickened in California but only two cases in Texas.
“You can negotiate price, and quality but you can’t negotiate food safety,” he said.
PHARR PICKING UP
The Pharr-Reynosa International Bridge is the Rio Grande Valley’s main link for Mexican mangoes to enter the United States.
More than 227 million pounds of mangoes crossed the bridge — 25 million boxes weighing 8.8 pounds each — from January 2014-15, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Nearly 300 million pounds of mangoes entered through Pharr during the same time frame the year before.
As of February, the volume of fresh fruit passing through Pharr had risen 19.4 percent over the prior year, to $209.72 million, according to World City trade data. In general, fresh fruit falls under the top five major imports at the port.
Nieto-Montenegro said he’s visited several countries and dozens of farms, packing houses and warehouses within the industry to collect information and determine where weaknesses might be.
“Everyone in the production chain needs to play its part,” he said.
Cold storage warehouses on the Texas-Mexico border are primarily used for temporary storage and sometimes repacking for supermarkets across the nation.
“I am seeing a huge increase in the number cold storage facilities opening up here,” said Hector Garza, industry relations manager for the Texas International Produce Association based in Mission.
Garza said much of the growth is due to the Mazatlan-Matamoros superhighway connecting Mexico’s Pacific Coast to the Rio Grande Valley. A new cold storage warehouse is set to open in Pharr next month, he said.
David Grijalva Quinones, director of RGVV Express Transport LLC., a McAllen-based trucking company, said he was interested in the meeting because he’s recently connected with some farmers south of the border.
“We know some growers in Mexico and we do the transport for them. Right now, we’re doing just mangoes,” Grijalva said.
The growers live in Mexico’s Michoacán state and are about to begin mango harvest season. He said he came to the meeting to learn more about the industry.
“We wanted to get involved but we are the new kids on the block,” he said.
Grijalva said the company plans to accept shipments of Tommy Atkins and Ataulfo mangoes — two of the most popular varieties consumed by Americans.
The Ataulfo mango is small and has yellow skin and is considered creamier and sweeter than its counterpart. The Tommy Atkins mango is often red, yellow and green with bright yellow flesh inside and is known for being tangy and has more fiber.
The biggest difference, though, is the shelf life, said Manuel Michel, executive director of the National Mango Board, a trade organization based in Florida.
“There are hundreds of different varieties of mangos but the problem is that many don’t transport very well,” he said.
This year Michel said he expects the Ataulfo to continue its rise in popularity and predicted that nearly half of mangoes imported from Mexico would be that variety.
Depending on the time of year, U.S. mango imports come from southern, central and even northern Mexico.
“In Chiapas and Oaxaca, they are finishing up right now,”he said and that the Michoacán region, along the western Pacific coast, will be next. “They’ll probably produce through April, May and June, and they it will move further north towards Sinaloa.”
Then once the Mexican season is over, distributors begin to look for fruit grown in central and South America to fill orders from produce buyers across the country.