Health inspectors struggle to prevent food smuggling at Texas-Mexico border



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Posted on August 17, 2012 at 10:58 PM

Updated Monday, Aug 20 at 1:39 PM

An outbreak of bird flu in western Mexico has caused the price of eggs and chicken to spike and now health inspectors are on the lookout for shoppers who cross the border to buy lower cost eggs and poultry in the U.S.

Mexico has vaccinated 80,000 chickens to prevent the spread of the disease and destroyed eight million chickens infected with the virus in the state of Jalisco.

The price of eggs has topped three dollars a dozen in some parts of Mexico.

"I buy whatever is cheaper on the other side, "said Guadalupe Rodriguez, referring to Texas. The mother of two lives in Ciudad Juarez but routinely shops in El Paso.

She said she was not aware eggs from the U.S. are not allowed in Mexico until a health inspector at the border seized 36 eggs in two large cartons from her grocery bags.

On the border people routinely cross back and forth to get the best prices. In this case comparison shopping means buying food in another country.

Both Mexico and the U.S. ban some items to prevent the spread of animal or plant diseases. Neither country allows eggs from the other across the border.

"It’s more common for people to cross with eggs from the U.S. since the price is so much cheaper," said Victor Arce, a health inspector.

Inspectors for SENASICA, which regulates food quality and safety, and SAGARPA, which oversee animal health, work side by side with Mexican customs officers at ports of entry.

A red light and a loud buzzer is the signal for drivers entering Mexico to stop for a random search.

Often shoppers returning to Mexico are not aware certain groceries are not allowed into the country but others smuggle banned food items across the border.

"We find them in the spare tire, under the seat, "said Arce. There are also smugglers who move banned food in bulk across the border.

Shoppers are allowed to bring packaged chicken and pork into Mexico if it has a USDA seal. Beef is banned.

On one busy afternoon, a health Inspector seized six packages of meat that did not have the USDA seal from a woman who had just done her weekly shopping in El Paso. She was mad as a wet hen after the inspector made her dispose of the meat in a special container for banned food items.

She ripped opened the packages because she suspected the agents would take the food home later. She then angrily wagged her finger at the inspector before getting in her car and driving away from the international bridge with the rest of her groceries.