As the summer ends, so does the availability of locally grown blueberries. Enter imports to keep all functioning and healthy. But wait!
Global commerce has become a two-edged sword for the food industry.
The $65 billion in food imports into this country annually has given retailers unique products to sell — and shoppers selection and variety year-round, as is the case with blueberries. At the same time, it has ushered in recalls and media reports of unsafe foods, causing retailers heartburn, and consumers safety concerns.
Maintaining a safe supply of food imports is no easy task, and it is costly. The challenges are tied to a system that involves different inspection processes, limited resources and world politics all set against the backdrop of globalization that is transforming food distribution in this country.
Import safety got the attention of President Bush, who mandated that a group — Interagency Working Group on Import Safety — be formed to examine the inspection system for imports. Its initial report was presented this month, concluding that more can and should be done to ensure import safety beyond random border inspections. The group, which visited retailers and wholesalers in a fact-finding tour, acknowledged that a collaborative effort is needed. Food Marketing Institute and the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which released a proposal last week for strengthening the system, endorse the group's efforts and awaits its final recommendations.
What role do retailers and wholesalers play in this process? Jay Campbell of Associated Grocers, Baton Rouge, La., who hosted the group during its tour, said it is a matter of the government having protocols in place and enforcing them. As a downstream supply chain partner, Campbell said he is reliant on third-party sources that have more control in the import process than he does. “We do not know what the growing, harvesting, shipping and packaging protocols are. We don't have visibility of that. So we have to rely on the government.”
Jill Hollingsworth, FMI's group vice president, food safety programs, believes the food industry and the private sector have a big role to play, and the government can't go it alone. Retailers should “work directly with their suppliers and know who their suppliers are, and hold them accountable in making sure the foods and ingredients they import are safe.” She reminds the industry of FMI's Safe Quality Food program, an integrated food safety and quality management protocol. Currently, 9,000 companies are certified under the system. This compares to the 150,000 foreign manufacturers currently registered with the U.S. to import foods. Hollingsworth urges retailers to go to FMI's SQF database to find out who is certified.
Whole Foods also took action this year with its Whole Trade Guarantee, based on a set of buying criteria that not only includes ensuring quality, but also attempts to ensure good ethical and environmental practices. Products are sold in stores under the World Trade logo.
All of this is great. But wouldn't it be nice if it were one world, one set of standards and one global importing system safeguarding food for all. Label those blueberries “Planet Earth Certified.”