Mud Slinging

When I worked in my family’s produce company, we shared a Chilean shipper with the Pandol family. In this issue of PRODUCE BUSINESS, I’m pleased to share a letter that we received from Jim Pandol. He writes from an encompassing perspective. His company is a significant grower and marketer of U.S. produce and certainly has no interest in seeing that product besmirched, but his family also has long been active in import and export and thus Jim has a broad perspective on issues such as food safety.

The whole subject is occasioned by the release of a General Accounting Office report that said, well, virtually nothing meaningful. The report, for example, did not say that imported food is less safe than domestically produced food.

What the report did say was that only a tiny percent of imported food is inspected by the Food and Drug Administration. In fact, only 1.7 percent of the 2.7 million shipments of imported fruits, vegetables, imported seafood and processed foods under the FDA’s jurisdiction were inspected. As part of these inspections, only 16,000 samples underwent laboratory testing.

This report has declared a problem and, as usual when the government finds a problem, the solution desired would give the government more authority. Specifically, the GAO requests that congress grant the FDA authority to require that other countries adopt safe practices for fruits, vegetables, fish and processed foods – the same authority that the USDA has for meat and poultry imported into the U.S.

To start with, it is worth noting that it is not at all clear we have a problem. The land is not awash with people ill from imported food. In fact, we have no real evidence that imported food causes any more distress than domestically produced food. By and large food-borne illness is caused by mishandling. The handling is at retail stores, restaurants and, especially, in consumer’s kitchens. The dirty little secret is that Mom is far more often the villain than any food factory – a fact you never hear any politician warning about.

To the extent there is any problem, the proposal for extending the FDA’s authority is problematic. First, there are no accepted practices in the U.S. that could easily be applied to foreign countries. Most of the safety-related issues depend on general conditions, such as clean water, not on a particular practice.

Second, the science behind these “safe practices” is likely to be weak, probably unable to stand up to requirements in GATT, NAFTA, and other treaties. This is particularly true as we have no laws requiring U.S. growers to follow these procedures, nor any inspection mechanism domestically to ensure they do so.

Perhaps most important of all to realize is that the FDA already has the authority to keep out any food they know to be unsafe – witness the current exclusion of Guatemalan raspberries from the U.S. market. So this new authority would not have the effect of keeping out unsafe foods – it would have the effect of internationalizing U.S. law.

The ramifications for this are enormous. After all, countries tend to be jealous of their prerogatives. If the U.S. asserts the right to tell every country in the world what each country’s agriculture practices ought to be, surely other countries will respond in kind. What a disaster for U.S. food exports when we are confronted with hundreds of countries making up lists of agricultural practices. It need not even be said that a lot of these lists will be developed for reasons of protectionism.

Of course the possible danger to U.S. producers goes even beyond the loss of export markets. What Jim Pandol’s letter is pointing out is that U.S. consumers are very unlikely to make sharp distinctions between imported and domestic produce. If imported produce is perceived to have a food safety risk, domestic product is likely to suffer as well.

This merits a note of caution because much of the concern over the safety of imported food, in general, and produce in particular, has been motivated by concerns expressed by domestic produce growers who compete with imported product. Yet what goes around comes around and one has to think about the long-term implications of impugning the quality of the food supply.

So what are government and aggrieved domestic growers to do? The response of produce associations in the U.S. has been politically astute, but substantively useless. To defuse this situation the call has been for more funding for the FDA so it can do more inspections, lab tests, etc., and thus solve the non-existent imported food safety crisis in that way.

Of course the percentages inspected are so small that even an enormous budget increase is unlikely to have a material impact on the safety of the U.S. food supply. So whatever its political appeal as a sound bite or a press release, it is of limited utility as a policy option.

The government could try to intervene by singling out egregious cases. Think of those airport signs that say that the Federal Aviation Administration has found that certain foreign airports do not maintain adequate security. If the FDA wishes to publish an advisory saying that certain countries do not maintain proper food safety practices on their exports to the U.S., one can be certain that supermarkets would instantaneously stop carrying product from that country.

As far as the U.S. growers go, they can urge people to buy American, they can pitch supporting domestic growers as good for the U.S. economy and ecosystem. But they would be wise to be circumspect with regard to attacking foreign farmers on food safety issues. It is hard to throw mud around and not wind up pretty dirty yourself.