Many people remember the recent nationwide salmonella outbreak earlier this year originally thought to be caused by tainted tomatoes that was then later determined to be caused by jalapeno and Serrano peppers from Mexico. It cost both industries millions of dollars.

“Such incidents illustrate the potential vulnerability in the security of imported food products and the need to develop a better tracking system,” said William Nganje, associate professor in the Arizona State University (ASU) Morrison School of Management and Agribusiness.

Nganje hopes to prevent these occurrences in the future with the help of a recently awarded $247,092 grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security for his latest food safety study, “Intelligent Food Defense Systems for International Supply Chains: The Case of Mexican Fresh Produce to the U.S.”

The grant allows Nganje to find ways to identify a mechanism to prevent unsafe cargo passing through ports of entry (POE) at the U.S.-Mexico border and develop better tracking and accountability systems.

To make this possible, Nganje and Timothy Richards, professor in the Morrison School of Management and Agribusiness, are collaborating with Rene Villalobos and George Runger of ASU’s Fulton School of Engineering. The goal is to plan an information environment that will be the backbone of a smart inspection framework.

The researchers also are working with CAADES, a major stakeholder in the Mexican fruit and vegetable sector, and other Mexican institutions to address issues related to intelligent food systems.

The concept the team is working on is information-technology based and would allow the collection and storage of information as agricultural products move from production to ports of entry.

According to Nganje, intelligent food-defense systems provide a potential strategy with real-time controls to mitigate the food-terrorism/food safety risks of imported products.

“Currently there is an enormous gap and risk to the imported fresh-produce supply chain for the US,” he said. “These risks have both health and economic consequences.”

The team also will conduct a detailed cost-benefit analysis of a number of alternative intelligent system technologies using dynamic “real option” economic models and will assess the feasibility of intelligent systems for the U.S.-Mexico fresh-produce supply.

“Adoption of intelligent technologies by private firms on a voluntary basis will only be economically viable if the expected economic returns are greater than the costs incurred,” Nganje said.

Arizona is a key player in the import of produce. The economies of several local communities along the U.S. border, such as Nogales, Ariz., rely on trade and food imports. The port of entry at Nogales, Ariz., processes almost 50 percent of the United States fresh produce traded during the winter season (October-May).

Approximately 300,000 trucks pass through the Nogales port from Mexico during the year. This is an average of more than 1,400 trucks per day during the winter season, of which approximately 900 contain produce.

The value of the fruit and vegetable shipments through Nogales is estimated at more than $2 billion annually, which accounts for more than 4 billion pounds of fresh product.

The study is expected to be completed by the summer of 2009.