Mexico's AMHPAC looks to 'smoking gun' traceability
Recent food safety scares involving papayas and mangoes have had detrimental impacts on Mexican growers, who for the most part have been following the correct sanitary procedures. For Mexican Association of Protected Horticulture (AMHPAC) CEO Eric Viramontes, the problem comes down to an inability to track unsafe products to a common source. At the Produce Marketing Association's (PMA) Fresh Summit in California, he told www.freshfruitportal.com about strict traceability standards his association will have in place by August, 2013.
Viramontes says the approach to food safety crises has been an evolving process, but AMHPAC is about to speed it up a notch with five standards its members must meet by Aug.1, 2013.
"Most of these situations in terms of food safety , are controversial because there has never been really a smoking gun to determine where the problem is - there has never been a link saying here's the problem, here's the salmonella," he says.
"This is something that has driven us to become a very competitive industry. Over the last 12 years you clearly see Mexico has been enforcing food safety hazard systems, security systems. You walk to a packing shed today and you feel like you’re going inside an operating room.
"From one perspective it has made Mexico a better supplier, and on the other side I think it also has made authorities understand the responsibility they’ve got and to really understand the problems, and not just be pointing fingers."
As part of a proactive approach to the problem, AMHPAC has put a 'blindaje' plan in place, which in Spanish means 'armor' or as Viramontes translates it, 'bulletproof'.
"We actually have high levels of competitiveness that our members have to comply with in order to be members of AMHPAC - the first level is being part of an international benchmark on a food safety system, and basically that’s the GFSI (Global Food Safety Initiative)," he says.
"On the second level, you have to comply with any requirement from the authorities in place of origin and destination.
The third requirement is perhaps the most crucial, forcing every member to be a part of the Produce Traceability Initiative (PTI), which means if the Food and Drug Administration has not identified the exact source of an infected fruit or vegetable, than it simply is not an AMHPAC product.
The fourth requirement is that every member has to have third party certification for social responsibility, and the fifth demand is that each member has two official certification processes per year under the GFSI.
"This all means that not only are you taking care of your business, but you are taking care of your industry’s business, and you create an elite group of growers that have a high level of confidence in that they’re doing things correctly," he says.
Protected horticulture - 'the future is here'
While protected horticulture still only makes up a portion of Mexico’s produce industry, Viramontes says it is on the rise with reconversion.
This form have farming has taken a strong hold with vegetables such as tomatoes, cucumber, squash, bell peppers, hot peppers and eggplant, and he believes the same transformation will take place for fruits; a trend that is already in motion.
“Of course you have it with cucumbers, bell peppers, eggplants, you name it, but right now we have new operations growing papayas, lemons, limes, lettuce, asparagus.
Viramontes is bullish when asked how long it will take to see significant protected segments for these products.
“I think we’re going to see it in the next six years,” he says.
He says this form of growing has so much potential as it is a "tailor made suit" for the needs of farmers and the products they deal with.
"It's actually something that was developed to enhance nature, not to compete against it. These were developed for two objectives – to protect and manage.
"You want to create the best conditions so the product is happy, that’s what you’re promoting. It’s like a human being, they put air conditioner in your car and a heating system so you feel comfortable. That's protected agriculture.
"There’s a lot of need to understand better technology too. Maybe a lot of people think greenhouse products are more artificial – on the contrary, you’re creating a more sustainable environment, more according to nature’s conditions, you’re using less water."
He adds that protected horticulture also doesn't need to use pesticides as you can control pests or diseases physically, rather than chemically.
"The challenge challenge is just understanding what your product needs.
"The future is here. People have seen a tremendous growth in protected agriculture in Mexico; it’s an industry that’s increased rapidly, although you cannot exactly say that it's growth, it's really reconversion with all the open fields going indoors.
"The reality is, in a country like Mexico, we plan to be growers for many generations more. As long as people want to eat, we're going to be growers."