Latin America prepares for 'draconian' U.S. food safety laws
U.S. President Barack Obama signed the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) this year to combat the 3,000 deaths recorded annually as a result of diseased food consumption. In Latin America the reaction has been mixed, with labels for the legislation ranging from ‘draconian’ to ‘the path to take’, but both sides of the fence agree producers will need to comply with the import requirements or face dire consequences.
When the act comes into effect it will give increased authority to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to prevent sales of contaminated products, which result in around 128,000 hospitalizations each year.
While the legislation came into force after the act was signed on Jan. 4, it has until 2015 to be fully developed in practice.
The law will apply to both domestic producers and importers, but Brazilian and Chilean officials tell Freshfruitportal.com the new laws are effectively a non-tariff trade barrier.
“(They’re) more draconian than tariffs, as the sanitary laws can imply total import prohibition, and also add additional costs for exporters,” says Brazilian Foreign Trade Secretary Welber Barral.
“The level of requirement will vary according to the product, and especially according to the specific rules to be approved by the Department of Health. For that it is so important for Latin American producers that they go along with the proposed regulations in the coming months.
“(It) follows the trend in that country in growing demands for consumer protection and also to elevate the security level with respect to imported foods. In this sense, the Bioterrorism Act (2002) introduced additional registration laws for food imports.”
His comments are echoed by Alejandro Buvinic, who heads up the Economic Department of the Chilean Embassy to the U.S. He sees the FSMA as a non-tariff trade barrier but is optimistic Chile’s exporters are up to the task; after all, they are already the main exporters of berries and grapes to the North American nation.
“How much the effect will be depends on the development of the rules, for which they’ll (farmers) have to work arduously and in a coordinated way to prevent new regulations from becoming trade-restrictive measures,” he says.
“They have extensive export experience in the American market, which is characterized as a demanding market in quality, price and labeling.
“In terms of our exporters that are well-informed and meet the new standards, they will have an advantage over those countries that have more lax food safety systems.”
He says the new standards must be developed through FDA rules that are still in the development stage.
“They are conducting public hearings to discuss the scope and effect with stakeholders, and are collecting information regarding the regulations of third countries on their systems, practices and food safety programs.”
While the exact nature of the rules is still uncertain, one point is clear to Chilean agronomist Johanna Trombert - the new regulation will intensify the level of fruit sampling, meaning longer periods for the fruit in hold.
“It doesn’t need to be that long to affect the condition,” she says.
The Hortifrut food safety and quality assurance manager says there is ‘a lot of ignorance about the topic’ in the industry, but it has already been made clear the FDA is mainly worried about microbiological contamination and pesticides in plants.
She warns the FDA tends to conduct two-day inspections with a lot of demands, while denying the FDA an inspection will give sufficient cause for the organization to block market entry altogether.
“We in Hortifrut are always prepared but I believe those who are not should get prepared,” she says.
On the other side of the Andes, 5 al Día Argentina president Mariano Winograd is more critical, highlighting a deeper ideological issue at play with the new legislation.
“I believe that for the world to advance it needs exchange and integration, and not isolation and disconnection,” he says.
He also takes aim at the U.S. Government’s decision by citing Obama Administration lawyer Cass Sunstein, who has argued against the extreme application of the ‘precautionary principal’ for political purposes in one of his many publications.
Winograd’s compatriot Miguel Ángel Giacinti is far less critical. The consultant highlights a fruit traceability study he conducted in 2010 with Argentine, Chilean and South African producers, analyzing the weaknesses and strengths of those countries in meeting the demands of import markets.
“It seems to me that only those who think they don’t have an adequate system of traceability, could think this is a commercial barrier,” he says.
“There exist numerous quality standards, which constitutes a problem because they compete with each other and push up the tracking system, so standardizing to me seems to be the path to take. In this, the governments of the producing and importing countries have a lot to contribute.”