U.S. TO ASSIST COUNTRIES IN COLD-CHAIN PRACTICES

WASHINGTON -- Bolstered by additional funding, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Foreign Agricultural Service is set to embark in June on a new voyage to assist foreign countries in implementing and standardizing cold-chain practices for produce and other perishables.The USDA's cold-chain initiative received an additional $316,000 in March after a successful four-market pilot study in Thailand,

WASHINGTON -- Bolstered by additional funding, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Foreign Agricultural Service is set to embark in June on a new voyage to assist foreign countries in implementing and standardizing cold-chain practices for produce and other perishables.

The USDA's cold-chain initiative received an additional $316,000 in March after a successful four-market pilot study in Thailand, the Philippines, Brazil and the Dominican Republic. According to Steven Beasley, an agribusiness specialist for the FAS, eight additional countries have been added: China, Malaysia, Vietnam, South Africa, Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.

The principal goal of the project is to improve sales of U.S. perishable food-products in those countries, as well as associated U.S. refrigeration-related support technologies and services, said Beasley.

To that end, the initiative seeks to remedy the challenges faced by developing countries who lack the food-safety technology -- proper refrigeration in the case of perishables -- by providing technical assistance through the FAS and participating private companies.

Besides fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables, the program also applies to foods such as meat, poultry and seafood; dairy; deli; and even cut flowers and ornamental plants.

"We may have some really fine products when they're produced here in the states, but if they look poor, or are compromised in terms of quality at the [export] consumer level, then we lose our competitive advantage against both the domestic producer in that country and our competitors who are closer by," said Beasley.

For example, "we've seen [U.S.-grown] lettuce that was shrink-wrapped in a very poor state. It doesn't present the right image," he added.

The pilot study, begun in 1998, was comprised of individual assessments in developing and emerging marketplaces to determine if the country could maintain an adequate cold chain in the distribution and marketing of perishable food products.

The pilot focused on identifying weaknesses in the distribution, storage and handling of imported U.S. foods; rectifying problems through the use of follow-up technical assistance; and delivering technical support in the form of seminars, association-building and reverse visits to the United States, said Beasley.

For participating countries, the knowledge gained has allowed them to improve their own cold-chain infrastructure and protect the quality and integrity of product exported to the United States, he noted.

"You're not doing this in isolation," he said. "You're certainly going to have spin-off benefits for domestic producers and probably for products going out."