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Pundit’s Mailbag —
Assessing U.S. And Non-U.S.
Food Safety Standards

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, September 20, 2007

I am writing as a former life-long part of the western produce industry.

I’m afraid my note is going to verge on a rant, but I just read yet another article, this one in a trade publication, where buyers, FDA, etc., etc., are beating on our industry, re-living the spinach incident, and generally flagellating themselves and each other.

I am concerned that all these folks are ganging up on our U.S. industry, and the spectacle is beginning to look like the settlers circling the wagons and then turning their rifles toward the inside, instead of toward the outside, shooting at the Indians.

We as a country are so busy killing off our own industry that we forget where the real challenge lies. In my mind, that is imports, from any number of countries of origin.

Until about five years ago, I spent a fair amount of time in west Mexico, both the mainland and Baja.I hear the safety aspect has improved a little in some areas, but that means it still has a long way to go, overall.

I believe we could pit probably the bottom 20% of our industry against the top 20% of imports and not be too far off a match.Whether the percentages are okay or somewhat off, I believe the concept is valid. We are going to throw so many resources and beat on so many of our domestic producers in trying to eradicate the final one percent of domestic problems that we’re going to wind up killing off the industry and leaving everything to the importers.

I’ve been around plenty long enough to know that there’s a big stretch between the practical and doable contrasted to the idealized models, but at some point we’ve got to put attention back where it belongs.

Thanks for being a voice of reason, and not hesitating to call them as you see them.

Best regards,

— Vic Safranek
Logistic Solutions Inc.
Phoenix, Arizona

We appreciate the kind words regarding the Pundit. It is hard to be a “voice of reason” on food safety as the world is sort of unreasonable.

On the one hand, infinitesimal risks are treated as such horrible problems that there is no limit as to the resources that should be spent on correcting them.

On the other hand, possible solutions — such as irradiation — are deemed beyond the pale.

It is hard to reconcile things such as this.

We appreciate Vic’s concern for American producers, and as he worked for five years for Primus, he certainly knows his food safety. Yet we think his assessment of the food safety status of many non-U.S. producers is off the mark.

Certainly in many areas of the world, there could be food safety issues if we just went in and bought up production intended for the local market. However this isn’t the bulk of our imports.

Much of America’s imported produce is not grown for the non-U.S. domestic market — virtually all the Chilean product, or Central American and Caribbean melons, for example, is grown to be exported.

In Chile the lack of a domestic market leads to a dependence on global markets and thus the need for certifications from buyers around the world. This has led to a very high standard. How many American producers are certified to sell to Japanese, British and North American supermarkets? In the Caribbean and Central America, much of the counter-seasonal product is produced in operations set up by Americans, Europeans or Israelis and functions as a kind of island within the country.

We recently ran a piece about American growers starting operations in Mexico. It is worth noting that the growers were said to move there to avoid labor problems — not food safety standards.

Ironically, the one place where domestic growers may wind up in trouble vis a vis imported product regarding food safety is the conflict between food safety and environmental standards. It may be difficult or impossible in California or much of the U.S. to clear cut the riparian areas around rivers and streams, fence out all the wildlife, etc. Compromises that have been developed, such as flagging that part of a field showing evidence of animal intrusion, may not be satisfactory.

Countries without those same environmental standards, which can just cement over the river bank, may wind up with an advantage on food safety issues.

In theory, rigorous food safety standards shouldn’t have any negative impact on domestic product since food safety standards should be enforced uniformly on all supply sources.

Put another way, domestic growers need not fear high standards; it is only variable standards that they need to worry about.

There is, however, cause for worry. Just as we wrote here that buyers were not demanding that all food safety standards be met by locally grown produce, so we have no reason to be confident that buyers will insist on standards in places where it is difficult or expensive to enforce the standards.

If Vic or anyone else wants to help domestic growers, there is no need to advocate for lower standards. Just advocate for uniform standards, uniformly applied. U.S. producers should come out just fine.

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