By Tim Gaynor
PHOENIX (Reuters) - Arizona has banned produce inspections by its agriculture department in Mexico over fears that escalating drug violence there could put inspectors lives at risk, authorities said on Thursday.
The Arizona Department of Agriculture, or ADA, said it took the decision earlier this month not to send inspectors to northern Sonora state to check fruit and vegetable quality prior to import, citing fears of surging drug violence there.
"The biggest reason was violence over the border," said ADA spokeswoman Laura Oxley, of the decision not to send up to 20 inspectors to check produce at warehouses in Sonora.
"They drive miles south of the border into Mexico where ... you read stories of innocent bystanders caught in the cross-fire, and it's not worth the risk to have our people put in the danger zone," she added.
The change will have no immediate impact as no inspectors are currently in Mexico, while future inspections will be carried out north of the border, Oxley said.
The ban comes as exploding drug violence in Mexico has claimed more than 31,000 lives since President Felipe Calderon took office in late 2006 and sent the military to crush the powerful cartels.
"Widespread violence" in and around Nogales, the namesake city south of Nogales, Arizona, last week prompted the U.S. consulate in the state capital Hermosillo to order all staff visiting the area to travel in armored vehicles.
Arizona is a gateway for $2.5-billion-a-year in Mexican produce including tomatoes, grapes and bell peppers destined for consumers across the United States and Canada, according to the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas trade group.
The decision changes a decades-old practice that has allowed Arizona distributors to decide which country to submit produce for inspection. In other U.S. border states, inspections are all carried out north of the border.
The FPAA called on state agricultural authorities to reconsider the ban, which they said had given Arizona distributors too little time to prepare.
"We are three weeks away from receiving tomatoes, and this gets dropped on us," said FPAA Chairman Jaime Chamberlain, who owns Nogales, Arizona-based J-C Distributing, Inc.
Chamberlain said the change in procedure risked causing traffic bottle necks on both side of the border, and left some distributors in Nogales with inadequate warehouse space to allow for inspections.
(Reporting by Tim Gaynor; Editing by Anthony Boadle)