(June 11) Mexican agricultural official Luis Chavez knows that establishing a new government-run destination inspection service for fresh produce won’t be easy. Creating one that North American fruit and vegetable buyers and suppliers can put their trust in will be even more difficult.

Especially considering the U.S. Department of Agriculture destination inspection service — the very model of Mexico’s system — showed it could succumb to corruption just four years ago.

In Mexico, where bribing government officials for favors seems part and parcel of the country’s image, Chavez knows that the system must be built right from the start.

“This is bringing down 60 to 80 years of old practices and trading of agricultural commodities,” said Chavez, director of the Mexico’s Agri-Food Quality Inspection Service, based in Mexico City.

He noted the federal government of Mexico is in the process of building a destination inspection service for fresh produce — something the country has never had before.

Five supervising inspectors have already been hired in Mexico City and have undergone training at the U.S. Department of Agricultural training facility in Fredericksburg, Va.

The incentive to create a government sanctioned inspection service coincides with Mexico’s new status in the Fruit and Vegetable Dispute Resolution Corp.

Paperwork launching the Mexican version of the DRC was signed last October.

That process, in many ways, hinges on a credible inspection service that can document arrival problems and provide an accepted basis for resolving disputes both for international trade and shipments within Mexico.

Chavez said he and others are trying to convince retailers operating in Mexico to embrace the idea of a government-run inspection service.

Their reservations stem from the lack of history with the inspection service and the perception of the corruption problem in Mexico, he said.

“They still have questions and doubts about how will we certify the system is corruption free. It’s difficult to erase that image from the public mind,” he said.

Conrad Johnson, co-owner of Washington Export LLC, Yakima, Wash., said shippers he works with would probably want his staff to handle destination problems that arise in Mexico because of the integrity issue.

“I think shippers would feel that the process (in Mexico)…. would not be specific enough or too easily manipulated to have much confidence in,” he said.

Johnson said his firm, in a good month, can ship 400 loads of Northwest fruit to Mexico. The company has four full-time agronomists on staff who can be dispatched to Mexico or other markets in the event of quality and condition issues.

“If we have a big problem in Mexico City of more than one load, involving big decay and thousands of dollars, we would have a person there,” he said.

However, Lorena Lopez, in export sales for Stemilt Growers Inc., Wenatchee, Wash., said a government run inspection service might be useful in Mexico, depending on its structure and administration.

Chavez said Mexico’s five supervising inspectors were hired just out of college and are compensated well compared with overall salary averages for college grads.

Although Mexico had to sacrifice the benefit of inspection experience when hiring college graduates, he said the inspectors are coming from college with a good value system.

Through the implementation of the program, Chavez said he intends to keep his focus on the goal of a trustworthy service that will be of service to the North American industry.

“We want to create the structure to carry out quality inspections. We don’t want to mix in plant health or food safety,” he said.
In the Mexican inspection system, Chavez said there would be three levels of inspectors — federal, state and private companies that have been recognized and supervised by the federal government.

Mexico City will be the focus of the federal inspectors. Statistics show that 40% to 50% of the country’s fresh produce comes through that region. The five federal inspectors have been trained at the USDA training personnel in about 15 commodities.

Chavez said inspectors may be added in Monterey and Guadalajara in the short term, perhaps as early as next year.

Chavez said he believes the inspection service could be operating in a limited way by the end of the year.

One of the legal issues that must be resolved before then is whether the results of the inspection can be appealed. Government decisions in Mexico can be appealed up to 40 days after the fact, and that process is too long for perishable commodities, Chavez said.

The destination inspection service will be voluntary and user-fee based. Charges for the inspection services haven’t been finalized but likely will be somewhat cheaper than the U.S. or Canada. A standard grade and condition inspection in the U.S. costs about $86.

“If the industry doesn’t find the service attractive, it won’t use it,” he said.

One of the options for the Mexican inspection service is to provide the service at a 50% discount during the first year for DRC members, or perhaps have a general period of introductory pricing.

The five inspectors the Mexican government hired last year have begun trial inspections for wholesalers at the Central de Abastos Food Terminal in Mexico City. They have also performed shipping point inspections for mango exporters.

The test inspections have been few — about five performed and another five scheduled as of early June — and mostly with receivers who are DRC members and are familiar with the development of Mexico’s inspection service.

Receivers know they can’t use the trial inspection document as an official government document but merely as a third-party perspective on the shipment.

Mexico has 42 grades established for fruits and vegetables, though Chavez said it is more common to see people using U.S. standards or company-specific parameters for arrival. Within Mexico, government grades are rarely used for fresh produce, he said.

Mexico’s inspectors will be flexible enough to work with different standards, including government and private specifications.

“Inspectors are being trained on general procedures on how to grade with Mexican standards, U.S. standards and Canadian standards,” he said.

For example, one of the test inspections showed imported pears marketed as U.S. No. 1 demonstrated higher percentages of russetting and decay than allowed under that grade.

Even though the inspection was not official, the receiver and his supplier came to an agreement to adjust the price of the product to reflect the condition of the load.

Chavez said that much attention is being devoted to develop inspection procedures that are consistent and straightforward.

Eventually, Chavez believes Mexico’s inspection service will be respected by the industry and certified by the USDA and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

If destination inspections for fresh produce are successful, he said Mexico’s inspection service could expand to other foods, including corn, wheat, fish and meat.