Growers said their produce is subject to double the scrutiny that U.S. tomatoes face: inspected first by Mexican officials and then again at the border when crossing into the U.S.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has warned consumers against three types of raw tomatoes that have sickened 228 people in 23 states since mid-April. It has not pinpointed the outbreak's source, but cleared imports from six countries — though not from Mexico, which supplies 80 percent of tomatoes imported into the U.S..
"This action, which has no scientific basis, is excluding exports of Mexican tomatoes from the U.S. market," Mexico's Agriculture Department said in a statement. "The FDA's unjust action is causing severe damage to Mexico's tomato industry, which provides thousands of jobs."
Mexican tomato growers say exports have come to a halt.
"We can't sell a single box of tomatoes," said Jesus Macias, sales manager at the Productora Agricola Industrial del Noreste in the border state of Baja California.
His farm normally ships up to 50,000 boxes of tomatoes a day to an importer in Chula Vista, California — until it stopped buying his produce last week. Macias plans to give his 3,000 laborers an extra day off each week to cut costs as long as the slump continues.
Baja California began its harvest in April and be would the hardest-hit state if the U.S. salmonella scare continues to stem sales.
Macias said he used to sell each 12-kilogram (26-pound) box of tomatoes for $15 in the U.S., but now must sell them in Mexico, where a glut of unexported tomatoes is flooding the market and pushing prices as low as $5 a box.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have said 228 people have been identified as having salmonella with the same "genetic fingerprint." At least 25 have been hospitalized.
On the do-not-eat list are raw red plum, red Roma or red round tomatoes, unless they were grown in specific states or countries that the FDA has cleared because they were not harvesting when the outbreak began or were not selling their tomatoes in places where people got sick.
The FDA is directing consumers to its Web site — http://www.fda.gov — for updated lists of the safe regions.
Also safe are grape tomatoes, cherry tomatoes and tomatoes sold with the vine still attached. That is not because there is anything biologically safer about those with a vine but because the sick have assured investigators that is not the kind of tomato they ate.
Salmonella is a bacteria that lives in the intestinal tracts of humans and other animals. The bacteria are usually transmitted to humans by eating foods contaminated with animal feces.
U.S. health officials have presented no proof that the contaminated tomatoes are from Mexico, said Manuel Tarriba, head of the Sinaloa state Tomato Growers Association. No salmonella has been reported in Sinaloa state, Mexico's top tomato producing region, he told Mexico's state news agency, Notimex, on Wednesday.
"Even if Mexico isn't the culprit, the industry has already been affected. We need to change that, because when you send an alarm to consumers, the first thing they do is stop buying," he said.