Consumers drive push toward tighter regulations on imported fresh fruit

November 19 , 2010

Consumers concerned about food safety, health, the environment and free trade are driving the push toward stricter regulation of imported fresh fruit and other agricultural goods, said Theresa Almonte, business development manager, fresh produce global, of SGS, a global inspection and certification company.

Theresa Almonte, business development manager, fresh produce global, of SGS

Consumer demand in the West and Japan is compelling retailers to implement product standards that are even stricter than government regulations, meaning that fruit growers, importers and exporters must adapt to the changing landscape. Third-party certification of facilities and outside auditors are more common, she said at a seminar sponsored by SGS Chile.

More extensive regulations in North America, Europe and Japan are shaping how developing markets such as China and Russia are monitoring imports, she said. But navigating the rules in emerging markets can be difficult.

Regulations in Russia and China “can change like that,” she told after the session. “And it’s not necessarily transparent.”

In North America and Europe, regulatory change happens more slowly, Almonte said.

In the United States, the Food Safety Modernization Act moved to the Senate floor Nov. 17 for debate. The legislation in part would shift much of the responsibility for food safety to foreign fruit growers and other agricultural producers by requiring them to certify that their products and facilities meet U.S. standards. U.S. officials hope the bill will be signed into law by President Barack Obama by the end of the year, according to The Washington Post.

Right now, fruit is the second most-refused food at U.S. points of entry. Fruits from Latin America are refused most often for bacteria, filthy conditions or pesticides, she said.

Health-conscious consumers in Canada are particularly concerned about allergens and labeling to accurately reflect what may cause medical problems in food, such as soy or tree nuts, Almonte said. Foreign importers are advised to consult with a Canadian broker to navigate the rules and ensure that nutritional labeling in French and English is correct.

The regulatory picture is more complicated in China and Russia. Many food-safety scares begin in China, such as the melamine milk scare in 2008, and China is now defensive in its application of rules for imported foods, Almonte said.

“It’s difficult to know what regulations will come,” she said.

Russia’s market for imported fruits and other goods has been damaged by the economic crisis. Before, it had been following the lead of the European Union, which has the strictest import regulations in the world, Almonte said. But now, “the ability of consumers and importers to buy and pay for imports are what’s affecting the market.”

Even though regulatory changes move more slowly in the West and Japan, growers, importers and exporters companies of all sizes have to keep up.

They “have to react quicker to compete. If your competitors are doing it, you’re going to be left behind,” she said.