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Food safety: From Mexican farm, to Costco, to your plate

American concerns about food safety in imports have created a whole new ethic among Mexican farmers eager to sell in the US.

By Staff writer / October 23, 2010

Farm workers at Aguilares Ranch in Salamanca, Mexico, pack lettuce bound for the US. American laws on food safety heavily influence the way Mexican export farmers do business.

Sara Miller Llana/The Christian Science Monitor


Villagran, Mexico

The tour at the sprawling Aguilares Ranch is about to begin. Hair pulled back. Check. Watches and bracelets off. Check. The employers are so meticulous about the sanitary standards of these lettuce, broccoli, celery, and garlic fields that a visitor wearing a wedding ring is asked to remove it mid-circuit.

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And you, global consumer, should be relieved. The vegetables grown and packaged at this exporting farm in the vegetable heartland of Mexico's Guanajuato State may have been, or could one day be, consumed by you. They go east to Europe, west to Japan, and north to Canada and the United States. The iceberg lettuce basking in a field on a recent sunny day could end up in an Olive Garden salad bar or a Big Mac; the flowering cauliflower might roll down the checkout belt at Costco or Wal-Mart.

The problem is that not all Mexican growers are required to follow the same rules, says Miguel Usabiaga, driving a pickup across his 1,800-acre ranch past workers adding gypsum enrichment to the soil with John Deere tractors and cleaning out ditches. And one bad tomato can trigger panic that affects the nation's entire growing industry. "We are very worried about this," Mr. Usabiaga says. "If there is one problem with an item in Mexico, all of Mexico gets hurt."

In Pictures: The foreign and domestic food chain

Political commentators have long noted that there are two Mexicos when it comes to wealth distribution. So, too, are there two Mexican agricultural worlds, with small, often uneducated farmers producing for the local market, and bigger agribusinesses growing for big chain stores in Mexico and export to the US and beyond.

Most exporters follow standards dictated by their clients abroad, and they say the guidelines for everything from pesticides to irrigation water purity are as good if not stricter than those facing farmers in the US. But neither the US nor Mexican governments oversees any of this.

At Aguilares Ranch, fields are fenced with chicken wire that goes to the ground, so that no animals can get through. Each day the fences are checked for holes. Domestic produce farms in Mexico are often left wide open, where animals can roam freely. You will see no donkeys, horses, or dogs frolicking in the garlic fields here, or small children for that matter.