The February freeze that cut sharply into Mexico’s vegetable production also put off implementation of the Eleven Rivers Growers food safety and quality assurance label.

But with the new winter deal approaching, the long-awaited launch is expected in December.

“We believe that we will have 22 or 23 producers (under the label),” said Fernando Mariscal, cooperative representative.

“Most important, we are expecting to have production around 40 million 25-pound boxes for this winter season.”

Commodities include a mix of tomatoes, bell peppers, chilies, cucumbers, eggplant, green beans and squash. Plans call for adding more crops over time.

Among the participating members in the nonprofit cooperative are Del Campo y Asociados; Tricar Sales; Triple H; Grupo GR; De La Costa; CAADES Sinaloa; Agroindustrias Tombell; Agricola de Gala; Agricola EPSA; and Agroexportadora del Noreste.

“Because we didn’t have the production (last season), we used the time to be more careful in the things we were missing,” Mariscal said.

“We had the higher standards for producers, but we didn’t have written standards for the certification companies.”

The audits involved will cover a wide range of criteria, including food safety, box traceability, quality processes, best agricultural and business practices, and social and ecological responsibility.

“We’ll start the process with weekly inspections that are not going to be announced,” Mariscal said.

“They could be in the open field or greenhouse, in packing, worker housing or at the distribution shipping point. Within a month we’ll cover that, moving weekly from one area to the next.”

“The certification will be done by third parties like Primus Labs or Scientific Certification Systems, or anyone who can meet the standards. We’ve integrated specifics for companies who want to be part of that.”

Grower-shippers pay about five cents a box for the labels. Those who pass the inspections will add Eleven Rivers Growers to their existing labels.

Any who fail lose the label until the causes are addressed.

For now, the label will only go as far as the pallet level — basically, a 4-inch tape around pallets.

“It’s our aim to reach the supply chain this year,” Mariscal said.

“Next year we hope to reach the final consumer, label each box and be present at the supermarkets.”

Because of that limit, the cooperative will push to keep pallet quantities together.

“We’re trying to show that pallet has been carefully monitored from crop to distribution, that it’s been well-handled all the way. Because some of the shipments will go to other suppliers, like terminal markets or brokers, we have to be sure it remains within its quality conditions.”

More than 40% of the volume will be in tomatoes. Some of the producers involved will be shipping bell peppers in the last two weeks of November, but Mariscal said the new label will start in unison on all commodities shipping in the first week of December.

Treatment of labor is as important a measure of a company as any other, Mariscal said.

“It’s not just the working conditions, but also the quality of living for workers,” he said.

“That they get meals twice a day from the producers, that they are well in terms of health and family concerns so they can be more productive.”