McALLEN, Texas — Tom Lovelace, executive vice president of McEntire Produce, Columbia, S.C. has been traveling to Mexico since the mid-80s and continues to do so, checking on supplies of lettuce, tomatoes and other vegetables that go to McDonald’s and other quick-service restaurants in the mid-Atlantic states.

Mexico, like California and Arizona, is an important link in supplying those fast food chains consistently.

“I feel as confident in our Mexico suppliers as I do with any of our U.S. suppliers,” Lovelace said April 1 during a retail/foodservice panel during the inaugural America Trades Produce conference. “The growers are following the same standards, jumping through the same hoops and are subject to the same audits.”

And yet, he said, a major McEntire Produce customer refuses to buy leafy greens from Mexico.

“It’s silly,” Lovelace said.

Those concerns from the buyer — or any company with doubts about Mexico’s advances in food safety, traceability and similar issues — might have been laid to rest by attending the March 30-April 1 conference, which focused on the fresh produce trade between Mexico and the U.S.

Kicking off with a tour of the Pharr-Reynosa Port of Entry (a major crossing point for limes, avocados and watermelons), the conference sought to shed some light on how Mexican production has rapidly evolved in recent years to meet the standards expected of buyers in the U.S. At the same time, panelists discussed issues that deter trade, from violence linked to drug cartels to disparaging messages in the media.

John McClung, president of the Texas Produce Association, cohost of the event with the Nogales, Ariz.-based Fresh Produce Association of the Americas, said there were about 275 attendees from Arizona, Texas and Mexico at the event. A detailed breakdown of the number of attendees from those three areas will be available soon, McClung said.

Response from attendees was overwhelmingly positive, particularly from those touring the port. Officials said although the Pharr-Reynosa port is a major entry point for imports for Rio Grande Valley companies, the tour was a rare behind-the-scenes for the trade. Representatives from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Department of Transportation and the Food and Drug Administration gave presentations.

“It’s important to us for you to see what we do here,” said Gene Garza, director of field operations for the Laredo Texas office of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Lance Jungmeyer, president of the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas, said it’s likely next year’s conference in the Nogales area will feature a tour of that port. According to the USDA, 90% of the imports from Mexico come through Arizona and Texas ports.

Session topics included the Tomato Suspension Agreement, growth in protected agriculture, emerging science and phytosanitary issues and the relationship between Mexican suppliers and U.S. importers. Each of the 12 sessions featured a panel instead of single speakers.

“It’s something that sort of organically happened,” McClung said about the sessions format. “Lance and I just gravitated to it. I like panels because I think you get more perspectives.”

U.S.-Mexico conference explores trade issues

Chris Koger

Carlos Vasquez, left, Mexico's agriculture minister, talks with Isi Siddiqui, chief agriculture negotiator for the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, following their March 31 presentation on Mexico/U.S. trade during the America Trades Produce conference.