(Dec. 4) Mexican cantaloupe importers saw their steady footing in the fall and winter cantaloupe market quickly slide in late 2002 when salmonella outbreaks effectively shut the border down.

Lee Frankel, president of the Nogales, Ariz.-based Fresh Produce Association of the Americas, said recent positive salmonella tests in three cantaloupe shipments are unfortunate because Mexican growers were just beginning to reestablish the crop.

“This was Mexico’s first strong cantaloupe season in four years,” Frankel said.

He said Central America had all but replaced Mexico as a prime source for fall cantaloupes. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, of the 954.4 million pounds of imported cantaloupe, 37.5 million pounds came from Mexico. The bulk of the imports came from Costa Rica, Guatemala and Honduras.

It is too early to tell if the recalls will affect the demand for Central American melons, said Amy Gates, chief operating officer of Frontera Produce LLC, Edinburg, Texas. She said the imports from Central America have just begun to arrive in late November.

Gates said the company’s acreage escaped the tropical storms that ravaged Central America during summer. She said there had been good demand for the first shipments of imported cantaloupes and that early-season prices were higher than year ago prices.

Gates said Frontera Produce had been receiving one shipment each week at the Port of Corpus Christi and that the Central American harvest would continue through May.

TAKING NOTICE

The recalls have attracted the attention of importers of other melon varieties. Brent Harrison, president of Al Harrison Co. Distributors, Nogales, said his company imports watermelons, not cantaloupes.

Harrison said watermelon importers are taking all necessary steps to make certain their product is safe. Harrison, who is president of the Orlando, Fla.-based National Watermelon Promotion Board, said the board alerted importers via its Web site to new rules and regulations regarding the handling and shipping of watermelons.

John McClung, president of the Mission-based Texas Produce Association, said the recalls had no effect on his members. He said he knew of no grower in northeast Mexico who attempted to export cantaloupes after 2002.

“They just didn’t bother to get FDA certified, and instead began growing other products,” McClung said.