She’s a happy shopper. As she stands in the checkout line ready to pay, she has a distinctive green bag emblazoned with bright yellow letters that say LOCAL slung over her shoulder.

Local, of course, she says when asked about this. It’s fresher, and I like knowing I’m helping to support our local farmers.

This is pretty much par for the course in the minds of today’s U.S. shoppers. No wonder then that.many large grocery stores now have LOCAL printed on their bags. And in many cases, there are large signs saying LOCAL placed randomly throughout the store, as though the word encompasses

“Imported” on any of their wares, except of course for cheeses, for example, that are known for the country where they’re produced. And some fruits and vegetables do bear small stick-on labels talking about their country of origin — Granny Smith apples from New Zealand or onions (in winter) from South America everything in the store. But unless they’re touting a specific food that has been raised in the local area, those signs are not describing all of the food in the store.

No surprise then that you won’t see shoppers proudly carrying bags that say IMPORTED.

Yet consider this: More than half of the fresh fruit and almost a third of the fresh vegetables Americans buy now come from other countries. That’s a lot.

But there’s more: According to the USDA, food imports will likely continue to increase, with imports of fresh fruits and vegetables rising 45 percent from 2016 to 2027. In other words, 75 percent of our fruit and almost half of our vegetables will likely be imported by then.

What about meat and fish

In most years, the United States exports more meat than it imports, according to the USDA. Meat from foreign sources accounts for roughly 8-20 percent of total U.S. meat supplies, but only the portions that are imported directly as meat are obvious.

Most U.S. livestock imports come from Canada and Mexico. The high costs associated with quarantine requirements and transportation limit imports from other countries. Even so, by by the end of 2021, The United States had imported beef from 20 different countries

As  for beef, Americans love their hamburgers and because of that beef imports are largely driven by the ravenous market for ground beef in the United States.

China, meanwhile, was the largest beef importer in the world in 2020. Coming in next were the United States, Japan, South Korea and Hong Kong.

Nearly all hogs imported into the United States are feeder hogs, and most originate in Canada.

As for chicken, more than 99 percent of the chicken sold in the United States comes from chickens hatched, raised and processed in the United States. None currently come from China. Less than 1 percent of the chicken consumed in the United States is imported from Canada and Chile.

Under the Federal Meat Inspection Act (FMIA), the Poultry Products Inspection Act, and the Egg Products Inspection Act, imported products are prohibited from entering the United States unless the exporting country meets all food safety public health standards applicable to similar products produced in the United States

Fish is another story. About 80 percent of fish and seafood products coming into the U.S. is imported, much of it from Asia.

A quick look at food safety and imports

Food coming into the United States from other countries may contain pathogens such as bacteria, viruses, or other disease-causing microorganisms, or toxins, which are mostly produced by microorganisms, according to the USDA. And these pathogens and toxins could lead to foodborne illnesses.

From 2002 to 2019, a total of 22,350 pathogen violations occurred from imported foods, again according to the USDA. About 70 percent of those violations came from two food sources: the fishery and seafood products industry and the spices, flavors, and salts industry.

Fishery and seafood products had 9,857 pathogen violations over this period, accounting for 44.1 percent of the total refused imports. This category was followed by spices, flavors, and salts, which had 5,886 violations, or 26.3 percent of the total. Cheese and cheese products accounted for 7.1 percent of the total, followed by fruits and fruit products with 6.2 percent, nuts and edible seeds with 5.1 percent, and vegetables and vegetable products with 4.1 percent.

In total, the top six food industries accounted for 93 percent of the total pathogen violations over the period, according to USDA’s Economic Research Service report (https://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/chart-gallery/gallery/chart-detail/?chartId=103196) published in 2021.

Clearly, U.S. consumers, who rely on government agencies to safeguard wouldn’t wouldn’t be pleased with these numbers.

What’s driving rising imports?

U.S. consumers are wealthier and more ethnically diverse than in years past when imports such as bananas and coffee took up only a small part of their shopping baskets.

But things have changed, and U.S. consumers have developed an appetite for foods from other countries, some of them tropical countries that can grow some of the foods that meet shoppers’ acquired new tastes.

Some of these countries are least-developed and develoing countries. Their climates allow these farmers to produce food when many areas of the U.S. are in the throes of winter. But many  farmers in those countries are small-scale farmers and don’t have the knowledge, tools or finances to make sure their food is safe. Yet there are overseas markets hungry for their food if only they could produce food that meets international food-safety standards.

The World Bank lists more than 45 countries as “developing countries.” Among them are many African nations, some Asian and Arab countries and some mid-Eastern and Latin American countries.. Go here ( https://worldpopulationreview.com/country-rankings/developing-countries) to see the list and where the countries stand in the rating.

The countries at the bottom of the ranking are often referred to as “least developed countries.”

In the U.S., the Food and Drug Administration oversees the safety of most of the human and animal food consumed in the United States. The goal is to make sure that food imported from other countries meet the same food-safety standards as those in the United States.

In the past, the approach focused on intercepting unsafe foods at the border and preventing them from entering into the U.S. marketplace. However, with increasing shipments of food from other countries coming in to U.S. ports, it became clear that a shift in perspective was needed.

Now, instead, the agency’s oversight includes preventing food-safety problems before the food arrives at the border and is sold in the marketplace — and before it ends up on consumers’ plates. No easy task to be sure since there are so many overseas farmers, producers and companies eager to get their goods into the United States. Even more challenging, some of them are from developing and less-developed countries and don’t have the means to meet U.S. food-safety standards at the foods’ point of origin.

Reaching out to developing countries

If the Covid 19 pandemic has taught people anything else it’s that, like it or not, they are part of a global community. And with food being imported from and exported to so many countries, many people are coming to realize that as consumers they’re also part of a global community. With that, comes the stark realization that food safety is not only a personal concern but also a global issue.

“ . . . it seems that the world is changing before our eyes,” said Roberto Azevedo, formerly the World Trade Organization director, when he spoke during a conference on food safety and trade several years ago. “Access to safe food is essential. It is a central element of public health . . . .”

Now in 2022, that message comes in even clearer as world trade in food continues to ramp up. And with predictions that it will only increase in the coming years.

That’s why Norway and Germany’s recent pledges of grants to help developing and least-developed countries  strengthen their ability to comply with international food-safety standards, which would, in turn, boost their access to regional and international markets, comes as such good news.

The Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (Norad) is pledging nearly $2.75 million from 2021 to 2023 to the Standards and Trade Development Facility (STDF) https://www.standardsfacility.org).

The organization was established by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE), World Bank Group, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the WTO. Examples of ongoing STDF projects include developing remote inspection techniques, which allows more farms to be inspected, which can hasten the process.

In December 2021, Germany contributed just more than $3 million to STDF for projects that will help small-scale farmers, producers, traders and governments access global and regional markets for food and agriculture products.

Bettina Waldmann, Germany’s ambassador to the WTO, said that her country “recognizes the need to support developing and least developed countries that have been and still are particularly affected by the negative impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Along those same lines, Bård Vegar Solhjell, director general of the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation said that the global pandemic emphasizes that “we must continue to invest in and scale up safe trading systems.”

WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said the money will support countries in implementing sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) standards, including using science-based approaches to protect plant, animal and human health.

“These efforts strengthen the safety and stability of a developing country’s food supply, so thousands of farmers can sell goods in new markets, improving livelihoods,” he said.

A win-win

Bottomline, expanding food safety programs and tools to developing and least-developed countries will help farmers and other agricultural entities in those countries gain more markets and therefore help improve their economies, thus giving the people there more spending power, much of which can be used for food.

But it will also give overseas consumers more safe foods to choose from year round. This, in turn, will also benefit them because prices will be more competitive.

It also fits in with the focus on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s goal to preven food-safety problems before the food arrives at the border and is sold in the marketplace — and before it ends up on consumers’ plates.

As for one of those consumers, John Gottula of Montana, who has raised cattle and hogs before retiring, said he likes the idea of helping farmers in developing and less-developed lands learn the basics of food safety.

“The whole thing is about getting safe food from Point A to Point B,” he said, referring to international trade. “I think what Sweden and Germany are doing is great. It’s good that people are beginning to see the light . . . that a lot of the food we depend on comes from other countries. Here in America, we’ve become so used to seeing so much variety in the stores that we think it’s all produced here.”

When it comes to helping other countries strengthen the safety and stability of their food supply, which will help thousands of farmers and other food producers benefit and improve their livelihoods, he said he hopes other countries, including the United States, follow what Sweden and Germany are doing.

“I’m all for it,” he said. “It will help lift all boats. The bottomline is that it will make their lives and our lives better. And our food safer.”

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