(Jan. 2) NOGALES, Ariz. — A shipper’s group is criticizing the Food and Drug Administration for its speed in removing exporters from an FDA-imposed countrywide ban on Mexican cantaloupe.

“In spite of general agreement to start processing applications faster, they’re still at 20-plus days to try to get anything done,” said Lee Frankel, president of the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas, Nogales.

“I don’t know if it’s the holidays or what the excuse is now, but the FDA is being very slow in responding to applications.”

The FDA Oct. 28 banned imports of Mexican cantaloupes after multistate salmonella outbreaks were traced to Mexican cantaloupe from 1999-2001.

An FDA spokesman, who asked to remain anonymous, said the agency continues to review applications by Mexican shippers. He said application packages that didn’t provide enough information have been returned.

The spokesman said the agency has a goal to turn around applications within five days.

“Insufficient or incomplete information is the only problem that we have been running into with a number of packages,” he said.

Frankel Dec. 30 said eight shippers had applications pending with the FDA. Many of them, he said, reapplied through an application procedure developed by the Mexican Department of Agriculture.

Frankel said several shippers have received certification and verification through the Mexican government.

“But at this point, the FDA is not really responding,” he said. “On the Mexican side of things, there is a cadre of 30 specifically licensed auditors. Things are moving well on that front.”

Cantaloupe prices have inched higher over the past few weeks, though less than last year when half cartons of 9s from the Caribbean sold for $10-11. Half cartons and crates from Mexico, 9s-18s, were selling for $16.50-18.50.

Half cartons from Guatemala were $9.50-10 Dec. 31, up only slightly from a week earlier, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The FDA in early December removed two farms from the import ban. Guadalupe de Guaymas and Santa Ines, both in Sonora, were exempted from the “detain without physical examination” list.