The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) will increase inspections of imported tomatoes and peppers by Nov. 22 to protect against the introduction of the tomato brown rugose virus (ToBRFV).
The USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) ordered the inspections on Nov. 18.
"For commercial shipment, [Customs and Border Protection (CBP)] will be doing examinations to make sure that commercial importations of tomato and chili peppers are free from the virus," Rick Pauza, a spokesman for CBP's office in Laredo, said in an interview with Fox South Texas.
ToBRFV does not affect humans or animals, but it is an immediate concern to agriculture and could cause "severe fruit loss in tomatoes and peppers," according to APHIS.
CBP will increase inspections at U.S. ports of entry to ensure imported tomato and pepper fruits entering from Mexico, Canada, Israel and the Netherlands do not show any signs of disease upon arrival.
The border inspection of seeds, transplants and fruit by CBP and APHIS is described as an "interim measure" until the agency reviews the science and determines how best to address this issue.
Laredo and Pharr, Texas, along with Nogales, Arizona, are where the majority of tomatoes from Mexico cross into the U.S. Tomato and pepper production in the U.S. is worth more than $2.3 billion annually, according to APHIS.
More tomatoes cross into the U.S. through Pharr than at any other U.S.-Mexico border crossing point. Wait times at the Pharr-Reynosa International Bridge – which is located in the cross-border market of McAllen, Texas – have been rising since Aug. 31.
Wait time for commercial trucks in McAllen, Texas, is 146 minutes. Chart: FreightWaves SONAR
Officials with the Nogales-based Fresh Produce Association of the Americas (FPAA) said they support inspections using a science-based approach for ToBRFV.
"Thankfully authorities at USDA and the corresponding agencies in Mexico and Canada have been coordinating for several weeks on an integrated approach," FPAA President Lance Jungmeyer said in a release. "USDA said it urgently wants to establish the science and we agree."
The disease caused by ToBRFV was first reported in 2014 in tomatoes in Israel, according to a USDA release. ToBRFV has also been reported in China, Mexico, Germany (eradicated), Italy, Jordan, Turkey, Greece, England and the Netherlands.
Mexico has had protective measures in place for ToBRFV since last year, when the virus was first detected.
Tomatoes imported from Mexico are already facing a supply chain squeeze caused by new regulations finalized in September between the U.S. Department of Commerce and Mexican growers.
The new regulations call for up to 92% of imported Mexican tomatoes crossing the U.S.-Mexico border by truck to be inspected by officials from the USDA.