A key issue in the debate leading to the new Food Safety Modernization Act focused on imports facing the same mandated standards as domestic fruits and vegetables.

Representatives of a government-backed program in Mexico are meeting with U.S. importers with the message that the country already has a program in place.

Demand for food safety training and certification through Mexico Supreme Quality is rising as grower-shippers of Mexican produce come to grips with the changing requirements of U.S. laws and retailers.

A year ago, 411 companies had the Mexico Supreme Quality certification. That number is expected to reach 512 by the end of 2011, said Fernando Fernandez, director of global promotions.

Mexican quality program expands food safety focusMexico Supreme Quality is a partnership between Mexico’s ministries of agriculture — SAGARPA — and economy, plus other government and industry groups.

“The board members are private persons from the agricultural sector who operate a government program,” Fernandez said. “We pay 50% of the cost of certification from our government monies.”

Begun in 2002 as a quality assurance effort, Mexico Supreme Quality evolved its structure over the years, taking on an increasing role in food safety since 2006.

It was Wal-Mart’s decision to require a Global Food Safety Initiative endorsement on all produce imports by 2012, plus similar changes by other retailers and passage of the federal Food Safety Modernization Act, that spurred more growers to seek certification, Fernandez said.

“With all these new laws that are coming out, we prepare Mexican growers as much as the market demands so they can be ready for export without any problem or issue,” he said. “We bring the tools they need to achieve exports to the U.S, Europe or Japan.”

When it comes time to get a certification, most growers who do business with the U.S. seek a global endorsement to make those other markets an option, Fernandez said.

Mexico Supreme Quality also hears from U.S. companies asking about certification for their Mexican suppliers. Early August meetings with importers in McAllen, Texas, included a sit-down with Edinburg, Texas-based Frontera Produce representatives.

“We are currently studying the details of this certification protocol,” Ian Vega, Frontera’s director of Mexico operations, said Sept. 7. Discussions are in the early stages.

Other stops in Texas included a meeting with Carlos Zambito, marketing director at the McAllen Produce Terminal Market.

Commodities certified by MSQ include apples, papaya, grapefruit, table grapes, watermelon, tomatoes, avocadoes, bananas, strawberries, limes, mangos, hot peppers and blackberries.