Like it or not, most of us in Wisconsin rely heavily on imported Mexican vegetables, especially in the winter and early spring months.

Though spring is finally here, April is one of the leanest months for local veggies—farmers are out in the field, but the majority of their time is spent planting—the harvest of most crops is still at least a month away. Depending on the weather, we may start to see small amounts of local produce trickle in: salad greens, spinach, rhubarb, asparagus, ramps, green garlic, and watercress are all possibilities, but April weather can be fickle, so nothing is a sure bet.

In California, cool weather crops like asparagus, lettuce, broccoli, and carrots are going strong this month. Anything that requires hot weather, however (tomatoes, peppers, cucumber, and melons just to name a few) is probably imported, and probably comes from Mexico.

Mexico is by far the largest importer of fresh produce into the United States—37% of the off-season veggies consumed in this country come from our Southern neighbor. This applies to organic as well as conventional produce—we just can’t compete with the warm weather and abundant sunshine that our Southern neighbors get during our coldest, darkest months.

Like anything that travels thousands of miles in a semi, imported Mexican produce is hardly carbon neutral. When you compare it to the energy that would have to go into growing these crops in Wisconsin during the winter, however, it’s surprisingly efficient. The high-powered lights and heaters that would be needed to grow enough winter produce to meet demand would suck up considerably more fossil fuel than the fully loaded and relatively efficient semis that bring produce here from warmer climates.

Food safety
One of the questions we get most often in the Produce department is how we can know for sure that imported produce is safe to eat, and truly organic. Many people are hesitant to buy produce from Mexico because of the perception that Mexican organic and food-safety standards are less stringent that what we have in the States. You may be surprised to find out that this just isn’t true.

First, food safety. While it’s true that our current food-safety system is less than perfect, there have been just as many outbreaks related to California produce as Mexican produce. FDA officials don’t routinely conduct on-farm inspections in foreign countries, but all imported food is subject to random FDA testing at the border (produce from the U.S. isn’t subject to any such testing). A food-borne illness outbreak is not good for business—it can drastically affect not only the farm that is responsible, but the entire market for a given crop—so the vast majority of import firms make sure that their growers are following Good Agricultural Practices (aka GAP) that are laid out by the USDA.

Food safety modernization act
Until recently, following the GAP rules has been voluntary. This is now changing. In 2011, President Obama signed the Food Safety Modernization Act. Among other things, this new law requires that importers document that the food they are bringing into the United States has been grown according to USDA food safety regulations. This documentation is verified by a third-party agency, and has to be made available to inspectors at the border. The new law also gives the FDA more power to refuse shipments at the border, to inspect farms in foreign countries, and it improves traceability in the event of an outbreak.

National Organic Program
Assuming the Mexican produce we eat is safe, how can we ensure that its organic integrity is intact? Luckily for us, when the USDA set up their “National Organic Program” (the rules that govern organic certification), they took good care to make sure that imported produce would be just as “organic” as domestically grown produce. All produce that is sold as “Organic” in the United States must comply with the USDA’s rules, and to verify this, all certified organic growers must have an annual inspection by a third-party inspector. These inspection agencies must in turn be certified by the USDA.

We at Willy Street Co-op are required to keep organic certifications from all of the growers we buy from directly. All of the wholesale distributors we work with must be certified as organic handlers, and they must keep organic certifications on file for all of the individual growers they purchase from.

For example, if I ever want to see documentation that the tomatoes we receive from a given farm in Mexico are in fact certified organic, I can request a copy of the farm’s certification from the distributor I purchased those tomatoes from. If I want to go farther, I can contact the third-party agency listed on the certificate, and they will give me detailed information about their inspection of the particular farm in Mexico that grew those tomatoes. It’s as failsafe as any system involving international trade can be.

So if you’re craving a tomato this April, don’t feel too bad about purchasing an organic, Mexican-grown one. Though it probably won’t have the flavor of a local tomato in August, you can rest assured that it’s just as organic and is just as safe as anything grown in the United States.

CORRECTION
Editor’s note: I, unfortunately, mis-accredited February’s Produce News article “Aphrodisiacs in the Produce Aisle.” Its author was Anita Peterson and you can find it here: www.willystreet.coop/digest/reader-editions/2013/02/aphrodisiacs-in-the-produce-aisle.
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