Opinion: South American exports meet U.S. food safety ‘gold standard’

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Opinion: South American exports meet U.S. food safety ‘gold standard’

By Digit Scans co-founder and BerryBroad Juanita Gaglio

Christopher Columbus put South America on the fruit export map in the 1400’s with the introduction of pineapples to Spain, while in the 19th century the continent’s first avocadoes were introduced in the U.S. Fast forward to 2011 and South America continues to play an important role in supplying the world, particularly the U.S., with fruits and vegetables.

To put this into perspective, in just the first five months of this year Chile alone shipped 1,718,421 metric tons (MT) of fresh fruit, while even the export value of a commodity like nuts is set to rise to US$300 million in the coming years. While the spectrum of Chile’s horticultural exports is broad, a good example is that U.S. consumers benefit from around 119,000MT of Chilean table grapes annually.

Overall fresh fruits and vegetables from South America account for 22% of the value of imports coming into the U.S. Other top imported agricultural staples include coffee, soybeans, wheat, rice, corn, sugarcane, cocoa, citrus and beef, while the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) top 15 list of agricultural import origin sources include Brazil (5), Chile (8) and Colombia (10).

Although it comes in at eighth spot – keeping in mind ‘agriculture’ is a wide category – Chile plays a major role, along with Ecuador and Peru, in supplying off-season fruit to the U.S market.  From November through June, U.S. consumers have a selection of Chilean grapes, blueberries, cherries, apples, stonefruit, pears, and a limited supply of avocados and raspberries.  During the summer months, Chile and Peru supply a considerable quantity of citrus, including navel oranges and minneolas.

But what about food safety?

As U.S. consumers are now realizing the year round availability of previously seasonal fruit, they ponder the question of food safety.  At the forefront of many consumers’ minds is the question, ‘how do I know it is safe to eat?’ Unfortunately, there is a huge misconception among many that food sourced outside of the U.S. might not be safe.

The average consumer does not realize the complex procedures that are in place to ensure that their food is safe.  Whether it is locally grown or travelling great distances, there are a number of safety measures to hurdle, involving various U.S. Government organizations, along with the cooperation of the exporting country. By the time produce has travelled from Peru, Chile or any other Southern Hemisphere country, it has typically been pre-inspected at its point of origin and continues with a rigorous inspection process upon arrival at the U.S port of entry.

Then on to the second question that often arises – ‘how safe is pesticide use’? Currently, there is no difference in pesticide levels between fruit from Chile or California. According to one Food and Drug Administration (FDA) spokesperson:

“The hazards for imported fruits and vegetables are the same as domestically grown products, which are: chemical (pesticide use), physical and biological (E.coli, salmonella etc) hazards.  Chile, along with other importing countries, must comply with the pesticide regulations for the U.S.  Chile conforms to the Pesticide Agenda, a code of conduct that outlines pesticide regulations of destination countries and the pesticide standards established by the Codex Alimentarius.”

To help you rifle through the jargon, ‘Codex-Alimentarius’ is a commission set up by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in 1963 to develop food safety guidelines and standards.

In fact, Chilean growers and packers have incorporated the worldwide ‘gold standard’ for food safety - Good Agricultural Practices (GAP).  This comprehensive program encompasses strict control of pesticide use, the monitoring of residue levels, state-of-the-art packaging and storage facilities, as well as a vigilant emphasis on worker hygiene and sanitation.  This same program is practiced in both the U.S and European agriculture sectors. Food safety is additionally addressed through a hazard analysis critical control point (HACCP) involving packing, storage and transportation facilities. There are training seminars that are on-going for these entities, addressing the implementation and monitoring of both GAP and HACCP.

According to John Ercolani, Assistant Import Manager of OHL Global Freight Management and Logistics, “90% of the produce from Chile is pre-inspected, prior to departing for the U.S market and is funded entirely by the Chilean Exporters Association.”

Getting down to business

This successful pre-inspection program involves three organizations: The Chilean Phytosanitary Authority (SAG), The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS – under the USDA) and the Association of Exporters of Chile (ASOEX).  The fruit must meet all U.S phytosanitary standards before exported to the U.S market.

A Phytosanitary Certificate Issuance and Tracking System tracks the inspection of agricultural commodities and certifies compliance with plant health standards of importing countries. A fumigation policy is enforced in order to protect against pests and disease. Companies who participate in this pre-inspection program must be authorized through a registration process outlined by SAG.  Initial requirements include registration of production sites and plants, as well as additional liaison statements that are established according to U.S regulations.

According to Chile’s Agriculture and Livestock Service (SAG), this program assigns fresh produce into four categories:

-          Hosts of fruit flies

-          No host of fruit flies

-          Lists of mixed products of Chile, authorized to enter at all U.S ports

-          Products with limited income to North Atlantic ports

Fruit that does not meet the pre-inspection requirements in Chile is inspected at the U.S  port of entry by The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) and goes through a fumigation process; 98% of grapes imported from Chile are fumigated to protect against harmful pests, as part of a three-day process involving a non-gaseous application of methyl bromide that leaves no residue. It is a safe method, which has been used for more than 50 years.

This shows that safety based on the food’s origin is not the issue and the questions should really be, ‘has the commodity been exposed to the same vigilant safety protocols prescribed by the USDA and other government standards? What on-farm food safety practices were implemented to guarantee food safety?’

According to the FDA, foodborne produce illnesses have been historically associated with both imported and domestically grown produce:

“There is no epidemiological evidence to suggest that consumption  of imported  produce disproportionately  accounts  for produce associated foodborne outbreaks and illnesses, however, FDA epidemiological analysis revealed that produce associated foodborne illness outbreaks tend to be larger in scope regarding the number of illnesses associated with each outbreak,” the FDA says.

Finally, South America comprises a large part of the 60% of fruits and vegetables imported into the U.S.  According to the FDA’s executive summary, between 10% and 15% of all food consumed by U.S households is imported from abroad. With vibrant agricultural sectors, several South American nations are major players in this, and the trend will continue to grow. So next time a customer is looking on the shelf, they shouldn’t be concerned that the fruit is from South American, because quite frankly, it wouldn’t be there if it hadn’t gone through the same rigorous processes required of U.S. domestic produce.


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