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.
According to the FAO “Food and Nutrition in Numbers 2014” report, the LAC region is indeed a strong exporter of food, with 2011 exports of U.S. $112 billion. (In comparison, Asia’s 2011 exports were U.S. $142 billion.) Imports in the LAC were U.S. $52 billion in 2011.
The World Trade Organization (WTO) reports that South and Central America exported a combined U.S. $217 billion in agricultural products in 2013, and Brazil alone ranked third globally in 2013 behind the European Union and the U.S., with U.S. $82.1 billion in exports of agricultural products.
The entire LAC region is composed of more than 30 countries, each with differing levels of advancement in their food safety characteristics, Dr. Caipo says, but basically all share membership in Codex Alimentarius.
Established in 1963, the Codex Alimentarius or the food code, has become the global reference point for consumers, food producers and processors, national food control agencies, and the international food trade. Codex standards are based on the best available science assisted by independent international risk assessment bodies or ad-hoc consultations organized by FAO and the World Health Organization (WHO).
The 12 sovereign South American countries are all members of Codex. These include Argentina, Bolivia (Plurinational State of), Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname, Uruguay, and Venezuela (Bolivarian Republic of).
(Although not the focus of this article, other LAC countries that are Codex members include: Antigua and Barbuda, Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominica, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Grenada, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, and Trinidad and Tobago.)
Positive Codex Influence
“The code has had an enormous impact on the thinking of food producers and processors, as well as on the awareness of the end users, namely consumers,” Dr. Caipo emphasizes. “Its influence extends to every continent, and its contribution to the protection of public health and fair practices in the food trade is immeasurable.”
Codex standards, while being recommendations for voluntary application by members, serve in many cases as a basis for national legislation, including in South America, Dr. Caipo relates.
“Codex members cover 99 percent of the world´s population,” she says. “Being an active member of Codex helps countries to compete in sophisticated world markets, and to improve food safety for their own population.”
The Coordinating Committee for Latin America and the Caribbean (CCLAC), a subsidiary body of the Codex Alimentarius Commission, coordinates food standards activities in the region, including the development of regional standards.
Food Safety Priorities
According to Dr. Caipo, the CCLAC 2014 report lists the issues and priorities for which support is requested from FAO and WHO as priorities for the LAC region:
- Strengthen the reference laboratories for food safety (staff training and accreditation);
- Actions that allow recognition of the work of the Codex Alimentarius by decision makers for more support and resources and for strengthening of national Codex committees;
- Funding to increase participation and effective participation in Codex meetings;
- Support to countries in the design and reformulation of public food safety policy;
- Strengthen mechanisms for coordination, collaboration and exchange of information for the control and prevention of foodborne diseases, and response to emergencies (alert systems);
- Support for data generation on consumer exposure to foodborne hazards and other relevant data for risk analysis and traceability;
- Improve the ability of small and medium food businesses to implement Good Manufacturing Practices, Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points certified systems that enable them to ensure “food safety” and also the development of strategies for information, education, and communication (IEC) for producers and consumers to strengthen this topic;
- Promote IEC for consumers in order to strengthen citizens´ active participation in the implementation of Codex strategies; and
- Support and work alongside the countries in harmonizing and coordinating integrated risk based food inspection systems.
“These priorities and concerns reflect the rapidly changing food safety environment at the global level, where food supply chains are more complex and vulnerable, and will require changes at the regulatory level to adapt and evolve in response to country and consumer needs,” Dr. Caipo elaborates.
With this in mind, Dr. Caipo says, FAO’s Food Quality and Standards Service looks at several key tasks, including strengthening national food control regulatory frameworks, and enhancing member country participation in Codex; providing independent scientific advice through the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives and the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Meetings on Microbiological Risk Assessment expert bodies to support the standard setting work of Codex; enhancing food safety management along food chains to prevent diseases and trade disruptions; promoting food safety emergency preparedness to build resilient agri-food chains; and developing online platforms for global networking, databases for information sharing, and tools to support food safety management.
On the downside of South American (and LAC) food safety, there is a need to increase political will to strengthen intraregional trade and local food chains, including short circuits and/or indigenous foods, Dr. Caipo says. “Lack of financial resources for food safety research in science-based decision making in South America and the LAC region is a problem,” she mentions. “There is also a need to strengthen prevention and response to food safety emergencies. This is compounded by inadequate support and training in food safety at different levels of the food chain, for example, for consumers and street vendors.”
“Street food preparation and sale remain a problem in several countries of the region,” says Fernando Quevedo-Ganoza, PhD, CFS (Certified Food Scientist), founding director of the Latin American Center of Food Bacteriology Teaching and Investigation (Centro Latinoamericano de Enseñanza e Investigación de Bacteriología Alimentaria) and principal professor of food safety at the National University of San Marcos in Lima, Peru.
“Many markets and food service sites lack the conditions required to ensure the safety of food sold or served,” Dr. Quevedo-Ganoza relates. “However, health authorities, as well as public institutions, show great interest in food control and in reducing the number and frequency of foodborne illnesses.”
“Food safety at home and in food service operations, where most of the documented outbreaks are reported, are a major issue in South America,” Romero Torres concurs.
“Infant diarrhea, with most cases caused by contaminated food or water, is a major concern for public health authorities,” Dr. Quevedo-Ganoza says, adding that in South America foodborne diseases are among the most prevalent illnesses, not only in children, but also in adults. “Such cases are often attributed to traditional indigenous foods and beverages prepared at home by low income individuals, often under less than optimum hygiene conditions.”
Most national food control systems in South American countries involve several ministries, and, thus, coordination among different agencies can be challenging, according to food microbiologist Bernadette Franco, PhD, a professor in the Department of Food Science and Nutrition and provost of graduate studies at the University of São Paulo, São Paulo, Brazil, as well as director of the Food Research Center, also located in São Paulo.
“Most countries in South America, in fact all of Latin America, are making efforts to align regulatory frameworks with the requirements of the WTO/SPS/Technical Barriers to Trade agreements,” Dr. Franco says. “Moreover, these countries are actively seeking trade facilitation mechanisms, such as use of equivalence agreements for sanitary registration. It is important to note that there is a continuous need in Latin America to build capacity related to food safety and risk analysis and a continuous need to strengthen laboratory networks.”
Despite existing inadequacies, according to Dr. Quevedo-Ganoza, South American countries have made great efforts to improve and increase their control and regulations relative to food.
Complimenting these regulatory efforts, some universities, including the National University of San Marcos, offer courses in hygiene, food microbiology, and food safety, and they train professionals specializing in these issues.
Also in South America’s food safety plus column, a good number of food exporters have been accredited in various systems of quality management and many of them have been accredited as they apply the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points system, Dr. Quevedo-Ganoza says.
“The proof of success is that there has not been a significant increase in the number of rejections or withholdings of South American food products by U.S. Customs in the last decade,” he relates. “It is also important to note that many companies strive to meet U.S. FDA requirements dictated in the year 2002 to prevent the menaces and risks of bioterrorism, as well as those indicated in FDA/USDA Good Agricultural Practices dictated after the 1997 confirmation that foods of vegetable origin are as dangerous as those of animal origin.”
(Dr. Quevedo-Ganoza is referring to the Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act of 2002, the Bioterrorism Act, and the joint FDA/USDA “Guide to Minimize Microbial Food Safety Hazards for Fresh Fruits and Vegetables.”)
Despite the time that has passed since the publication of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), FSMA requirements have not been readily understood enough by South American food producers to be used as a guide on the continent, Dr. Quevedo-Ganoza adds.
“In many South America government departments, previous FDA food safety legislation continues to be applied,” he relates. “It is important to reiterate that Codex Alimentarius standards are well known and routinely implemented by food manufacturers in South America. However, several major food exporters to the U.S. have been advised by U.S. food safety experts to interpret and comply with the mandates of the FSMA, and such compliance is continually growing here.”
Since South American countries are net exporters of food and food products, and the U.S. is for some countries in the region the most important market, FSMA and other U.S. food regulations are greatly impacting food production systems in South America with ever increasing alacrity, Romero Torres adds.
“FSMA brings new and more stringent requirements for those who want to sell their products in the U.S.,” he says. “To pass a FDA inspection will demand from many of our plants additional investments in terms of facilities, procedures, documentation, expertise, food analysis, inspection and certification, and other items. To pay for those substantial investments and increased costs, companies will have to be more efficient, improve risk management and risk mitigation strategies, and probably the prices of the products we export will have to increase. This means the cost of those investments will have to be shared by the producers and the market as well, or else we might not be able to maintain or grow our participation in the U.S. market. That said, South American food processing companies are adapting their systems to the new FSMA regulations as the regulations are being released in the U.S.”
Romero Torres is quick to point out that complying with the new FSMA regulations requires huge efforts in various fields, including institutional strengthening, application of risk analysis, a more science-based approach to production and control, data collection, and so on. “Some South American countries are more willing than others to adapt their production/regulation systems to the new FSMA requirements and, some act more rapidly than others,” he says, “so the opportunities and challenges will bring different outcomes to different countries and different food sectors.”