Mexican tomatoes face more scrutiny at the border starting April 4

Expanded inspections of Mexican tomatoes crossing the United States border are scheduled to start in less than two weeks.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) issued a reminder on Wednesday that the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) will begin the enhanced inspections of tomatoes coming across ports of entry along the U.S.-Mexico border on April 4.

“AMS will inspect all Mexican grape tomatoes in bulk, and all Mexican round and Roma tomatoes, including stem-on, for quality and condition upon their entry into the U.S. from Mexico,” according to the USDA. “Importers must request an AMS inspection when the load is available for inspection and pay the associated fees.”

Dante Galeazzi, president and CEO of the Texas International Produce Association (TIPA), told FreightWaves he doesn’t “expect there’s going to be a lot of impact to upstream distribution.”

“As long as the tomato importers are taking advantage of many of the meetings that we’ve held here in the [Rio Grande Valley] area, they should do fine,” Galeazzi said.

TIPA is in the Rio Grande Valley region of South Texas near the Mexican border. It represents companies involved in the entire fresh produce supply chain, including trucking, box manufacturers, seed distributors, farmers, growers and sellers.

TIPA, along with the USDA, city of Pharr and the Texas Cooperative Inspection Program, held workshops the past several months to cover the new tomato import inspection process, including operating procedures, expectations, costs and fee schedules.

The Pharr-Reynosa International Bridge is the main border crossing in the Rio Grande Valley and has been the busiest entry point for Mexican produce into the U.S. for the past three years.

The bridge brings in more than $1.2 million in revenue each month, with more than 50,000 trucks crossing every month, according to bridge reports.

Mexico is the No. 1 supplier of tomatoes imported by the U.S., accounting for 87% of the value of total U.S. tomato imports at $2 billion in 2018, according to the USDA.

The average weight of specialty crop crossings from Mexico — the daily total pounds of truckload movement of non-grain crops entering the U.S. at one of the Mexican border crossings — usually starts ramping up this time of year.

Between now and July, specialty crop volumes (MXCROSS.USA) usually increases as much as 35% above the 12-month average.

Produce crossing the Mexican border has fluctuated in March partly due to tighter truck capacity from coronavirus-driven demand for consumer staples. Chart: FreightWaves MXCROSS.USA

Galeazzi said the tomato inspections will take place at importers’ facilities, and most of the larger importers should have their own inspectors.

“The local inspectors office also has volunteers to meet directly with personnel at the warehouses ahead of the inspections,” Galeazzi said. “Larger facilities that have enough volume could even have an on-site inspector in place during certain parts of the season so they wouldn’t have to call the inspection office every single time.”

Galeazzi also said the Texas Cooperative Inspection Program has hired 20 additional inspectors specifically for tomatoes and has more staff on standby if needed for tomato inspections.

President Donald Trump recently signed the Protecting America’s Food and Agriculture Act of 2019, which allows U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to hire an additional 240 agriculture specialists and 200 agriculture technicians to help with border inspections.