Imported Waste

Friday, I talked to Yolanda Soto, director of the Wilson-Batiz Borderland Food Bank in Nogales, Ariz. Her food rescue group recovers millions of pounds of imported Mexican produce that would otherwise go to waste.

As I’ve learned, importing produce is essentially a game of timing. Produce, as we all know, doesn’t last forever. Because items are subsequently shipped across the nation from Nogales (50 percent of all Mexican produce comes through there), ripeness is the enemy. 

Nogales-based distributors inspect cases for any sign of ripening, Soto said. With most produce examined at that stage of the food chain, green is good. Any sign of ripening means the product won’t have enough of a shelf life once it reaches its final destination, which could be thousands of miles away. “If, for whatever reason, the product doesn’t meet the distributor’s requirements—if it’s too big, too small, too red or too green—they pass it on to us,” Soto said.

While the produce’s appearance and normal shipping problems cause plenty of waste, unusual occurrences amplify losses. After a few recent drug busts at the border, federal authorities decided to search every truck (usually it’s done randomly or where there’s suspicion), causing day-long waits, damaging produce and frustrating Mexican drivers. The Tucson Citizen had a nice recap of the events. What’s more, a plan to speed up border wait times isn’t looking likely, as The Arizona Republic reported.

Those delays caused ripening and contributed to a vast excess of perfectly good but unshippable tomatoes. In the last two and a half weeks, the Nogales food bank recovered 5 million pounds of tomatoes. It received so much product, Soto couldn’t find enough takers for it. Despite a nationwide offer of free tomatoes to those who would pay for the freight, she had to throw away 1 million pounds.

Such border delays are even more frustrating for Mexican growers and truckers and their U.S. distribution partners because they know the inspection system can work. “(Two weekends ago), it went pretty quick,” truck owner Jose Durazo told the Tucson Citizen. “I think all the port workers wanted to rush home to watch the (the Super Bowl), so they worked really fast. So you see, it can be done.”

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