A raging food-safety fight between American and foreign produce growers could spill onto grocery-store shelves - and ultimately catch consumers in the middle.
Ever since tainted Mexican strawberries surfaced in Michigan schools two years ago, Congress has stepped up efforts to impose country-of-origin labels on all imported fruits and vegetables sold in supermarkets.
Backers say the labels would protect consumers from food raised abroad in uncertain conditions, while ensuring that domestic growers wouldn't share in the blame when safety issues arise.
But importers say they already face the same stringent safety standards domestic farmers face. Instead, they consider the labeling issue an attempt to squelch foreign competition, and drive up food costs for everyone.
Nowhere is the battle more closely watched than in Nogales, Ariz., a bustling border town where more than $1 billion worth of tomatoes, grapes, and other produce crosses into the United States from Mexico each year.
"Ultimately, US growers hope to play up different stereotypes of foreign countries," says Lee Frankel, president of the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas, a Nogales-based trade group representing Mexican farmers and importers. "But virtually all the produce exported from Mexico meets the same standards as domestically grown produce."
Mr. Frankel says tightened labeling requirements would only raise retail prices, and incur greater monitoring costs for the government, which already spot-checks produce entering the country.
Indeed, the General Accounting Office estimates that a labeling program could cost as much as $56 million annually, and be difficult to enforce.
But to Tony Fazio, whose family-owned farms spread across central California's lush San Joaquin Valley, fair trade is the real issue.
"Governmental controls are quite different [between the United States and Mexico]," he says. "That means there are times when foreign producers have distinct advantages in terms of pesticides they can use, and in cheaper labor."
For both sides, the stakes are enormous - and continue to grow.
According to the GAO, American produce consumption grew by 43 percent between 1980 and 1997. During that same period, the amount of imported produce more than doubled, coming mostly from Mexico, Canada, and Chile. By contrast, market share for domestic growers increased only by one-third.
The gap has sparked fierce competition, and what foreign growers call a thinly disguised anti-free-trade crusade by powerful agricultural interests in Florida and California. They point to tough, recently enacted quotas on Mexican tomatoes that compete directly with Florida crops, and to "scare tactics" in the food-labeling controversy.
Among those spearheading such efforts have been Rep. Mary Bono (R) of California and Sen. Bob Graham (D) of Florida. Last year, at least five bills addressed country-of-origin labeling on food ranging from meat to dairy products.
Ms Melons and Grapes, a Nogales importer, reflects Mexico's growing share of the American market. Started in 1997, the firm had more than $6 million in sales its first year. "And we expect to raise that to about $10 million this year," says manager Miguel Saurez.
Standing in a vast, chilly warehouse filled with purple table grapes, Mr. Saurez says increased labeling would do little to protect consumers. "To me, it's mostly just a governmental weapon."
If so, it remains a stealth weapon, at least where it matters most - on store shelves.
"Oh, we'll get a call asking about where a melon or a batch of tomatoes came from," says Joaquin Mar, manager of the 17th Street Farmers Market in Tucson, Ariz. "But for our customers, it really doesn't seem to be an issue."
Mr. Mar says if country-of-origin labels do become law, he'd expect packers to create needed signs.
Inside the market, Miriam Stern is filling her cart with a colorful array of vegetables. "Sometimes I look to see if something is labeled," she says. "But I'm not a fanatic about it. As long as it looks fresh, it doesn't make much difference to me where it came from."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society