US suspends avocado imports from Mexico after inspector receives threats

Until further notice, avocados will not be imported from Mexico to the U.S. after a U.S. plant safety inspector in Mexico received a threat.

The U.S. government suspension comes after the safety inspector received a threatening message, Mexico’s Agriculture Department said in a statement.

“U.S. health authorities ... made the decision after one of their officials, who was carrying out inspections in Uruapan, Michoacan, received a threatening message on his official cellphone,” the department wrote.

It is not the first time that the violence in Michoacan – where the Jalisco drug cartel is fighting turf wars against a collection of local gangs known as the United Cartels – has threatened avocados, the state’s most lucrative crop.

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In August 2019, a U.S. Department of Agriculture team of inspectors was “directly threatened” in Ziracuaretiro, a town just west of Uruapan. While the agency didn’t specify what happened, local authorities say a gang robbed the truck the inspectors were traveling in at gunpoint.

The USDA wrote in a letter at the time that “for future situations that result in a security breach, or demonstrate an imminent physical threat to the well-being of (inspection) personnel, we will immediately suspend program activities.”

News of the suspension may affect avocado prices and supply chains in the U.S., Michael Swanson, Wells Fargo’s chief agricultural economist, told The Washington Post. Swanson said 8 out of 10 avocados purchased in the United States are from Michoacán.

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“In a few days, the current inventory will be sold out and there will be a lack of product in almost any supermarket,” Raul Lopez, Mexico manager of Agtools, which conducts market research of agricultural commodities, told The Washington Post. “The consumer will have very few products available, and prices will rise drastically.”

In a statement to USA TODAY, the Association of Avocado Exporting Producers and Packers of Mexico said it was working with Mexican and U.S. authorities to resolve the suspension.

"The facts mentioned here have already impacted the economy of the entire program, affecting the industry and the more than 300,000 jobs that depend on it,"  the group said in a statement. "We encourage all those actors in this value chain to take extreme care and vigilance to preserve such an important export program."

Contributing: The Associated Press

Follow Gabriela Miranda on Twitter: @itsgabbymiranda