Editor’s Note: The Caribbean, Central America, and Oceania comprise some of the world’s top tourist destinations. But behind the beautiful beaches, ancient ruins, and unique landscapes, each region is hard at work improving their food safety initiatives to be on par with the rest of the globe. This second part of this special report focuses on Central America. Other countries in this series include the Caribbean and Oceania.
Most Central American governments are not conscious of food safety issues, says Lauriano Figueroa, PhD, a specialist in agrochemicals and pesticides and the regional technical director for food safety for the San Salvador, El Salvador-based Organisation Internacional Regional de Sanidad Agropecuaria (OIRSA), the international regional agency for plant and animal health. OIRSA has more than 60 years of service in Central America and also covers the Dominican Republic and Mexico.
“The exceptions to some extent are Costa Rica, Honduras, and Panama, where there exists more governmental support to protect both export and local consumption products,” Dr. Figueroa says.
Panama, for example, boasts the Panamanian Food Safety Authority (Autoridad Panameña De Seguridad De Alimentos, its Spanish title, abbreviated AUPSA), a state created governing body to ensure compliance and enforcement of food laws and regulations for imported products. The Authority is devoted to food safety for the benefit of consumers using technical scientific methods and the principles of fairness and transparency.
In March 2016, the National Assembly of Panama approved a Best Practices and Agricultural Traceability Program, which regulates the raw products from plant origin to the final destination and vice versa along the entire chain. This follows the country’s National Livestock Traceability Program, which was implemented in October 2013.
According to Dr. Figueroa, it is expected that, sometime in 2017, a new resolution will require Panamanian importers to be registered with AUPSA, and importers will also be required to declare and demonstrate the traceability of raw materials and additives.
In most of the Central American countries there is no official integrated food safety system,
rather just isolated action from both agriculture and public health ministries, Dr. Figueroa relates. “Food safety is seen as an important issue for export products, but not for those for local consumption, especially animal origin products,” he explains. “The organized private sector has developed its own system, unfortunately with weak governmental participation, to ensure their commercialization in the markets.”
Food safety is a market driven subject, Dr. Figueroa mentions. “Products for local purchase meet some food safety specifications when they are distributed through a supermarket chain, with access to a narrow band of the population,” he explains. “However, most small growers who feed the local populations lack implementation of good agricultural practices, unless they produce for export.”
Dr. Figueroa says Central American agriculture is characterized by a poorly controlled use of pesticides in crop production and veterinary drugs in livestock. “Some 90 percent of water used for irrigation and pesticide spraying is contaminated,” he relates. “This contamination comes from industry and, from most towns, sewage water with no water treatment.”
Dr. Figueroa believes the path to food safety initiatives taking hold in Central America will be pressure exerted by the market, especially the demands of customers. “Governments will react only when the private sector that provides their international markets is perceived to be at risk,” he points out. “And any food defense initiatives here come from the private sector, especially due to FSMA and even stronger pressure from the EU market.”
U.S. imports from Central America consist primarily of bananas, coffee, sugar, fresh fruits and vegetables, and sea fruits, which comprise some three-fourths of the total, according to the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service and Dr. Figueroa. Guatemala and Costa Rica are the largest suppliers, accounting for two-thirds of U.S. imports from the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR) region.