Tracking Mexican Irish red potatoes in Belize City

A food safety alert by the Belize Agricultural Health Authority (BAHA), issued late Thursday evening, has put Belizeans in a state of concern over a highly consumed product, the Irish potato. Specifically, there were concerns raised by Cayo tourism lodge owner Bart Mickler, that a quantity of Mexican-originated Irish potatoes were tainted with dye from an unknown source, turning them a pink or fuchsia color, causing sickness in guests staying in the area.

BAHA says it has begun confiscating these potatoes countrywide, but on a visit to the central market on West Collet Canal in vlcsnap-2015-02-07-05h38m31s14Belize City Friday morning, the media uncovered firsthand evidence that the tainted potatoes are still in supply among certain vendors, sitting alongside the regularly sold potatoes, and have yet to be confiscated by BAHA.

At the wholesale section of the market near Cemetery Road, we spoke to a vendor who asked to be completely anonymous and off-camera. She described to us how BAHA inspectors visited the site on Thursday, but apparently did not look around thoroughly for evidence of the tainted potatoes.

The tainted potatoes sell along with the local brown and rouge varieties for $95 per sack wholesale, $1.25 per pound retail. The vendor told us how they were supplied with the product.

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vlcsnap-2015-02-07-05h38m47s186Market Vendor

[Paraphrased]  “[They came in] two weeks ago, because we get two weeks in a stretch, but this week none came. 

They told us they were from Mexico, and the man we buy from brings things from Mexico.” 

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While filming in the Michael Finnegan Market further down on West Collet Canal, in the process of comparing a larger dyed potato with the local variety, a special constable intervened and demanded that we get permission from the market manager for the Belize City Council. After initially giving her permission the manager reversed it and ordered us to cease and desist from filming, claiming her orders came from Mayor of Belize City Darrell Bradley.

BAHA authorities at their office in Belize City referred us to their colleagues at Central Farm for further information. We also sought comment from the Belize Marketing and Development Corporation (BMDC) but the manager was not in office until Monday and the person we spoke to denied that the Corporation had anything to do with the importation of the potatoes.

On Friday afternoon we spoke with Chief Agricultural Officer Roberto Harrison for an update via telephone. According to Mr Harrison the Ministry of Agriculture and BAHA have confiscated dyed potatoes from across the country with the exception of the Northern Districts of Corozal and Orange Walk. He discusses the process by which licenses are issued for potato imports.

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vlcsnap-2015-02-07-06h09m15s59Roberto Harrison – Chief Agricultural Officer

“The Ministry of Agriculture, working with the Supplies Control Office, issue permits for the importation of potatoes by all Belizean importers.  The last licenses that were issued were January the eighth.  That license would have been  good up until the end of February.

Our local production has started as of last week.  So there’s a clear distinction of what the locally produced potato is and those that are imported.  In fact, the dyed potatoes clearly show that it is dyed in that case.”

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RobertoHarrison noted some of the tainted potatoes may have already been sold as they have been on the market for about a week now. He also spoke about the progress of analysis of confiscated products.

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Roberto Harrison

“The food safety laboratory in Belize City is still doing the tests on them, and I’m not so sure we’ll have a conclusive diagnosis of what the dye might be. 

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RobertoHarrison believes that importers were trying to pull a fast one, hoping the dye would make the potatoes stand out less and avoid detection and confiscation by authorities.

Investigations have begun into exactly how the items came to Belize, and the focus is now on who violated terms of their license.

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Roberto Harrison

“When the actual importation of the product takes place, there is an inspection done by BAHA.  At that point likewise it pays duty. So Customs would have an indication of the actual amount that was in fact imported.

What might have been issued as a license might not be what was actually imported.  A comparison is made there to determine the timing of those imports, and then we’ll try to narrow it down to who might have imported in the last week or so.”

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The brown potatoes we also saw for sale are imported but legal varieties of the Irish potato.
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