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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Agricultural Standards – Imports

Ella Honeycutt dedicates her days to supporting the cause of farmland preservation from her Morrow Bay office on the central coast of California. Now, as president of the Coastal San Luis Resource Conservation District she is sounding the alarm about risks associated with imports of Mexican vegetables from fields contaminated by polluted water and desperately poor farm workers who have inadequate hygienic facilities such as toilets.

She is distributing a 3 minute newscast video that she claims documents “untreated water being used to grow and process vegetable crops in Mexico that are exported into the United States.” The same video reports that imported lettuce caused 200 people in the U.S. to come down with hepatitis two of whom died in 1988. Infected cantaloupes from Mexico are said to have caused salmonella infection to over 400 people in 23 states.

Honeycutt reminds American tourists how they have been advised for years not to drink the water in Mexico, not to eat raw vegetables or unpeeled fruits. With growing food imports into the USA land of plenty, Americans are eating vegetables grown, washed arid processed with the same water.

Growers in California are pressing Washington and state officials to require that imported agricultural produce meet the same inspections and production standards that American farmers nave to meet. They also want a new law that requires the clear and large labeling of imported agricultural products by country of origin at the retail supermarket level.

Several General Accounting Office and other official reports have noted how infrequently and poorly are the border inspections of food imports by U.S. Customs. Illegal levels of pesticide residues on coffee, bananas and other products routinely enter this country. What’s more, pesticides banned for use in this country but legal for export return to American dinner tables on imported foods.

On a fact-finding visit to Mexico, Ella Honeycutt says she “observed with my own eyes vegetables being picked in Ensenada, Mexico and packed into boxes with labels stating ‘grown and packed in the United States.'” If this practice is widespread, it makes tracing the food origin of food-borne epidemics much more difficult. She too strongly supports the right of shoppers in food markets to be informed clearly about the products’ country of origin.

To observers of the food safety scene, there is little new in what Honeycutt is reporting and urging and therein lies the problem. The Reagan/Bush governments have been too keen on pushing de-regulation to listen to the evidence calling for tighter regulation of food imports. Inspection budgets and numbers of food inspectors are down while these two Presidents appoint mostly anti-law enforcement people to head agencies.

One exception to these appointments is David Kessler, the new head of the road and Drug Administration (FDA). In the past year, he has been preoccupied with pharmaceutical issues and trying to get more workable enforcement authority from an indifferent Congress.

Perhaps the FDA can start giving this problem some more energy before larger epidemics from virally or bacterially contaminated food imports occur.

President Bush is urging a new Trade Agreement with Mexico which could make our stronger food safety standards vulnerable to repeal if a secret tribunal under the treaty decides they are “non-tariff trade barriers.” This possibility should lead the White House and Congress to insist on Mexico meeting the same safety standards for their food exports as U.S. farmers and growers have to meet.

Any readers wanting more information on this subject can contact Ella Honeycutt at 545 Main Street, Suite B-1, Morrow Bay, California 93442.