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Letter From the Editor: Off to Chile

Opinion

How many times has this happened to you?

You pack up food to take up to the ski condo so on Sunday morning you can pull out the pancake and waffle mixes to make breakfast without having to go out. After all, the overnight snow has left a foot on the truck and it’s still coming down.

But then, “Oh no!”

BlueberriesYou’ve forgotten to bring the blueberries. So you do have to go out. In the January cold, with morning wind off the Rockies and after cleaning a foot of snow off the truck and driving an unplowed road down to one of  the Kroger-owned mountain stores called City Market, you quickly pick up a couple boxes of blueberries.

Did I mention they are grown at the end of the world in Chile,  just a tad distance away from Colorado?

Chilean berries are one of those foreign products that American consumers have come to depend on. “Local” and “organic” and the many other marketing labels get most of the media buzz, but our government puts out data down to the last dime charting our preferences for foreign food products.

We’re importing about $120 billion a year in food and agricultural products. I just heard Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack say our exported food and agricultural products will top $130 billion, enough for a tiny little $10-billion surplus.

According to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, Chile exported food and agricultural products totaling $2.9 billion to the United States in 2015. U.S. food and agriculture exports to Chile totaled $890 million, for a trade surplus favoring Chile.

Chile is winning the food and agricultural trade game with the U.S. because American consumers are demanding a wider selection of food options. Just as with my blueberries in January example, consumers want such items as tropical fruits and vegetables, premium coffee, and a greater variety of wines, beers, cheese, grain products and preserved meats.

Imports today account for about 19 percent of food consumption in the U.S. That translates into 123 billion pounds, or 390 pounds per capita. And imported food is growing fast, roughly tripling so far during this century.

Part of the promise of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) is how it will apply to both domestic and foreign food through the sections on foreign supplier verifications and third-party certification. The number of food facilities registered with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration shows the large foreign interest in the American consumer market. While there are 88,356 domestic food facilities registered with FDA, there are an astonishing 212,183 foreign food facilities in the registry.

As we are about to reach compliance dates for various FSMA rules, we’ve been wondering about how foreign companies that import food to the U.S. are feeling about the new requirements. We are also also interested in how FDA is going about its business in these countries.

southern Chile mapChile seemed like a good place to look for answers to some of these questions. So when, several weeks ago, Chilealimentos A.G., the Association of Food Companies in Chile, invited us down for the organization’s annual conference coming up this week in Talca, Chile, how could we refuse?

Chilealimentos works to connect the country’s growers with world markets all in the name of “Chile, Food Power.” From my research to get ready for the trip, it’s clear that food is taking Chile to new heights. The nearly $3 billion in food exports is now roughly in balance with the country’s copper exports, its historic source of foreign exchange.

While there, I’ll be giving a little talk about food safety, mainly about how technology is driving consumer demand for transparency and how differing outbreaks drive public opinion. So it’s off to Santiago, population around 5.5 million, and then to Talca, about 160 miles farther south. It’s going to be great to see where those berries that get me through the winter come from.

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