Farmers insist Mexican berries safe despite scare

IRAPUATO, Mexico (AP) — Shops here sell strawberry keychains and strawberry dolls. Restaurants feature strawberry shakes. The local festival is the Strawberry Expo. And the fields are full of strawberries, which sell four pounds for a dollar at roadside stands.
So it’s no surprise that people here were indignant Thursday about reports of a U.S. hepatitis outbreak blamed on a batch of contaminated Mexican strawberries.
“Mexico has very good strawberries, very clean strawberries,” insisted Benjamin Vargas, wearing a cowboy hat and watching workers pile overflowing baskets of berries from his 69-acre farm along a nearby road.
“We all use very deep wells to irrigate our crops. It’s the law.”
Irapuato claims it’s been growing strawberries for 450 years. Vargas and other farmers and packers in the region say they hope what they call an isolated case in the United States will not taint their industry.
Mexican exports to the United States have been booming since the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect in 1994. Droughts in the United States also have increased demand for Mexican agricultural products.
There have been few reports of health problems related to Mexican exports, despite Mexico’s often-contaminated drinking water and a history of using sewage runoff for irrigation — a practice officials have tried to outlaw.
The berries at the center of the U.S. problem came from Baja California, in northern Mexico along the California border. But growers and state officials there also insist growing conditions are clean.
In that desert climate, growers distribute well water through drip tubes and say plastic sheets keep the berries from touching the ground. They say the berries are washed with deep well water before being shipped.
In the fields near Irapuato, a “whumpa-whumpa” sound resounds from pumps pulling water from 200 feet below the the green fields, where the scent of pines sweeps down from nearby hills and mingles with the aroma of strawberries.The fruit is loaded into baskets and shipped to packers like Agri-American S.A., a plant in Irapuato run by Larry Jensen of Mount Vernon, Wash.
Jensen said his plant’s 300 workers sort, wash, pack and freeze as much as 80,000 pounds of strawberries a day, much for shipment to Japan, Europe or the United States.
“Every time you have something that gets people excited, they may confuse the issue a little,” he said. “So they may stop buying jam or they may stop buying strawberry ice cream.”
But Jensen said there was no reason for concern.
He pointed to a room of workers wearing sterile gloves, gowns and masks giving a series of disinfectant baths to a red river of strawberries.
The berries plunged through long metal chutes filled with rushing water, then were dragged through three baths that Jensen insisted “will kill any bacteria.”
“This is a bubble washer here, and over there the berries are dancing on water in another washer … then they go through a final wash that is sort of like a jacuzzi,” he said.
Finally they are packed and flash-frozen before being trucked to ports for shipment.