From innovative Incan terraces on steep mountain slopes where potatoes and peppers flourish in Peru’s iconic Andes range, to the vast pampas of Argentina where the legendary gauchos herd cattle on horseback, to prolific coffee plantations in Brazil’s subtropical southeastern states, and to equally unique destinations in between, South America abounds with places where a tremendous variety of great food is produced for locals and the world.
Boasting an area of 6,890,000 square miles, South America is home to an estimated 387.5 million people. This mostly Southern hemisphere continent ranks fourth in area (after Asia, Africa, and North America) and fifth in population (after Asia, Africa, Europe, and North America).
“South America is strong in natural resources for food production,” says Marisa Caipo, PhD, the Santiago, Chile-based food safety officer for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) Regional Office for Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC). “The continent is also strong in innovative approaches on the part of large food exporters, as they typically respond positively and efficiently to trends in global food markets.”
South America’s unique characteristics include a great diversity of food products, including super foods, like quinoa, amaranth, purple corn, and acai berries, Dr. Caipo continues. “What’s more, food is produced in different seasons here than in Northern hemisphere continents, and this contributes favorably to the consistency of foreign food supplies year-round,” she points out. “Spanish is a common language in South America and throughout the LAC region, which makes communications feasible among stakeholders.”
South American countries export a wide variety of foods to the U.S., including fresh fruits, salmon, beef, wine, and coffee, among others, says Jairo Romero Torres, MS, a Bogota, Colombia-based food engineer and international consultant on food safety risk management and sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) measures. To that end, he too boasts that some of the strengths and unique characteristics of South American products are that they are delicious and available in the U.S. off-season. “They also travel shorter distances than foods coming from other continents, so they are fresher, and some of them have very attractive prices,” he adds, noting that “the seriousness of most of our exporters is well appreciated in the U.S. markets.”
The U.S. imported a whopping $18.509 billion worth of agricultural and fish products from South America in 2014, according to U.S. Census Bureau trade data compiled by the USDA.
Market access throughout the world and brand protection have been the major drivers of food safety in South America, Romero Torres emphasizes, “As a result,” he says, “actualization and implementation of new food legislation, as well as modernization of food safety inspection agencies to comply with international requirements and guidelines have been on the agenda of most countries in the region in recent years, all as a consequence of globalization.”
On the downside, since food safety efforts in South America have been devoted to cultivating export markets, food for domestic consumption does not necessarily have the same requirements nor the same quality and safety as exported foods, Romero Torres points out. “But the continued exposure to specialized markets realized over the last 15 to 20 years is contributing to improving our resources,” he says. “Now we have more food safety experts, better laboratories, more experienced food safety authorities, better rulemaking processes, and more training on food safety and quality than ever before. Food safety is definitely a hot topic in many public and private scenarios.”
Romero Torres observes that agriculture authorities, more than health authorities, have led this change in food safety regulation and inspection in the region. “That’s probably due to the importance of food safety for growing food exports, which defines a very close relationship between food safety and agricultural development,” he explains.