Balancing disease prevention with the sensitivities of commerce, the Food and Drug Administration is undecided on how to ensure that Mexican cantaloupes are free of salmonella when they enter the U.S.

Earlier, FDA officials told industry leaders to expect a policy announcement as early as July 5, but the agency told industry leaders the week of July 8 that the decision was perhaps weeks away.

Mexican cantaloupes have been implicated in outbreaks of foodborne illness caused by the Salmonella poona bacterium that have sickened dozens and killed at least two in the past three years.

The agency reportedly is considering automatic detention of Mexican cantaloupes, either on a regional or nationwide basis.

Considering the possible political and trade ramifications, the FDA decision must be based on sound science, said Donna Garren, vice president of scientific and technical affairs for the United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association, Alexandria, Va.

“Obviously, the FDA believes there is a public health concern with certain areas of Mexican cantaloupe production,” Garren said.

The delay in the FDA decision on how to handle Mexican cantaloupe shipments is creating problems for growers in Mexico, said Lee Frankel, president of the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas, Nogales, Ariz.

While U.S. cantaloupes dominate the domestic supply now, Mexican cantaloupe deals will start again in the fall.

“Unfortunately, the planting season begins in less than two weeks in Sonora, and we will be left without a decision by the FDA,” he said.

Frankel said not knowing the rules of the game was “incredibly disruptive and discriminatory. ”

“Apparently, the FDA is protecting the commercial interest of certain people who would prefer not to compete against Mexico,” he said.

Frankel said that if the FDA decides on a nationwide import alert — a scenario for automatic detention of product— it would most likely shut down most Mexican cantaloupe exporters.

In order to freely ship and come off automatic detention, the FDA requires data from several weeks of shipping to look at production methods.

“Unfortunately the cantaloupe fields will be done by the time the FDA is ready to inspect,” he said. Smaller growers without multiple growing regions will be especially hard hit, he said.

Garren said the FDA is carefully considering options, perhaps looking for a way to facilitate trade while safeguarding the public.

“I do know there are lot of domestic growers of cantaloupe who are anxious to hear a decision,” she said.

Some domestic growers of cantaloupe have cited episodes of low demand and lackluster promotion in the wake of negative publicity about the Mexican cantaloupe in the past few years.

If the agency does decide on automatic detention, it also must work out details on how growers can verify or certify that their growing practices will not contaminate the fruit with salmonella poona.

Garren said there has been some discussion that the FDA would approach Mexican cantaloupe in the same way that it approached Guatemalan raspberries.

Guatemalan raspberries, previously linked to cyclospora outbreaks in the U.S., faced a seasonal ban in this country from March 15 to Aug. 15, 1998.

Guatemala responded with a Model Plan of Excellence, a food safety system developed by the Guatemala Berry Commission with help from the Food Marketing Institute, Washington, D.C.; the Guatemalan Embassy in Washington, D.C.; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta; the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, Ottawa; Health Canada, Ottawa; and the Guatemalan government.

Five farms in Guatemala then were cleared in March to export raspberries to the U.S.