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Published June 25, 2012, 11:31 AM

Dry bean border snag

The Mexican government is stepping up enforcement of a so-called “zero-soil tolerance law,” and that could cut into demand for U.S. pinto and black beans, a U.S. dry bean trader tells Agweek.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

The Mexican government is stepping up enforcement of a so-called “zero-soil tolerance law,” and that could cut into demand for U.S. pinto and black beans, a U.S. dry bean trader tells Agweek.

Stricter enforcement of the law is adding to the cost of imported beans, making them more expensive for Mexican consumers, says Judd Keller, who works for Kelly Bean Co. in its corporate office in Scottsbluff, Neb. The company has a number of locations across the country, including ones in North Dakota and Minnesota.

Both North Dakota and Minnesota are major producers of pinto and black beans, which are a staple in the diets of many Mexicans, Keller says.

In the past, Mexico accounted for about one-third of U.S. dry bean exports, with the United States supplying about 10 percent of all dry beans consumed annually in Mexico, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service.

Mexico is importing more beans this year, from the United States and elsewhere, however, because of a devastating drought that has cut sharply into Mexican dry bean production.

Mexico for years has had a law that allows it to reject, at the border, imported dry beans on which soil or even traces of soil are found. Until this spring, the law wasn’t enforced, Keller says.

It’s extremely difficult to guarantee that dry beans contain no soil whatsoever, he says.

The good news, from the perspective of U.S. bean exporters, is that SENASICA, Mexico’s food safety agency, is allowing the rejected beans to enter the country for recleaning at a certified cleaning operation, Keller says.

The bad news is that some Mexican bean importers don’t have recleaning facilities of their own and must pay to have the beans cleaned, adding to their cost, Keller says.

He’s uncertain how much the extra cost might be. But he notes that black beans are particularly important in the diets of many poor Mexicans, who are affected by any increase in price.

Food companies “are finding ways to deal with enforcement of the soil law. But the additional expenses are a concern,” he says.

Drought and elections

Keller says he’s not sure why Mexico began enforcing the law at a time it needs more imported beans.

Jeane Wharton, executive director of the U.S. Dry Bean Council, says there’s speculation in Mexico that the country’s upcoming elections may be a factor in enforcement of the zero-soil law.

On July 1, Mexican voters will elect a president, 628 federal legislators and thousands of other officials.

The U.S. Dry Bean Council hasn’t taken an official stance on the no-dirt issue, Wharton says.

But the organization encourages dry bean exporters to document any problems they’ve had and provide the information to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal Plant Health Inspection Service.

Wharton says officials need to determine how widespread the problem is and then work with Mexican authorities to resolve it.

The U.S. Dry Bean Council is aware of only two border towns — Eagle Pass and Laredo, both in Texas — in which the anti-soil law is being enforced, although there could be others as well, Wharton says.

NAFTA’s role

Further complicating matters is the fact that Mexico is importing dry beans from more countries.

As of early this year, only the United States, Canada, Nicaragua and Argentina were permitted to export dry beans to Mexico, according to information on the USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service website.

But under terms of the North American Free Trade Agreement, Mexico is able to expand its sources of imports during disasters. North Mexico is suffering through its most severe drought in eight decades, USDA says.

In recent months, several countries, including China, have been added to the list of places from which Mexico can import dry beans. Some Chinese dry beans already have arrived in Mexico, although it’s difficult to estimate how many, Keller says.