U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt said Monday the United States wants to open an office in Latin America to monitor food safety.
His comments came as U.S. inspectors combed Mexican farms and distribution sites to determine if a salmonella outbreak that has sickened more than 500 people in the U.S. originated in Mexico or Florida.
Over the weekend, a team of inspectors from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration arrived and are focusing their investigation on tomatoes from three states: Jalisco, Sinaloa and Coahuila.
Leavitt said the inspectors were working with their Mexican counterparts to inspect farms, distribution centers and transportation methods.
U.S. authorities also are still looking at tomatoes from central and southern Florida. U.S. officials would not discuss exactly which sites were being inspected.
The outbreak halted almost all Mexican tomato exports to the U.S. That angered the Mexican government and flooded the local produce market with tomatoes. Some of the produce was left to rot in warehouses.
Inspectors, however, have cleared tomato exports from all but the three states that are being inspected. Most tomatoes this time of year come from the Baja California peninsula.
Leavitt said the main goal of the planned FDA office would be to ensure that food and other products from Latin America are safe for consumption or use.
The FDA recently reached an agreement to open three similar offices in China, and would like an office in India. He said no agreement had been reached on where the FDA office would be located in Latin America.
"We've had two incidents in the last month and a half: the Honduran cantaloupe, and now the tomatoes," Leavitt said, referring to a March FDA warning against cantaloupes implicated in a previous salmonella outbreak. "What it demonstrates is that when these incidents occur, we need a quick response."
Leavitt said safeguards in producer countries were key.
"We simply cannot inspect our way to product safety," he said. "Our new strategy, as I proposed it, would be, rather than stand at the border, to roll the borders back, and to find those places where products are actually being produced for American consumption."
He spoke during a weeklong visit to Mexico and Central America for talks on food safety and other issues.