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.
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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.
The CAFTA-DR is the first free trade agreement between the U.S. and Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua, as well as the Dominican Republic. The CAFTA-DR promotes stronger trade and investment ties, prosperity, and stability throughout the region and along the U.S. Southern border.
Combined, the countries in the CAFTA-DR would represent the 16th largest goods trading partner for the U.S., with $53 billion in total (two way) goods trade in 2015, according to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative. Exports totaled $29 billion in 2015, while imports totaled $24 billion. The U.S. goods trade surplus with CAFTA-DR countries was $5 billion in 2015.
In August 2015, the “Honduras Premium” label was implemented to certify the safety of exported fruit and vegetables. The initiative, which designates compliance with food safety management systems, is a collaboration of the Honduras Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock, through the country’s National Service of Agricultural Health and its Foundation for Rural Business, with support from the Regional Programme Trade and Marketing Alliances.
During 2015 and 2016, OIRSA, in a strategic alliance with the San Jose, Costa Rica-based Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA), developed and implemented Train the Trainer courses on Good Agricultural Practices (GAP), Good Livestock Production Practices (GLPP), and food safety auditing. “These courses included both face-to-face and virtual courses that addressed a diverse audience, including technicians from government, private, and academic sectors,” Dr. Figueroa notes.
An alliance amongst OIRSA, the Food & Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the Panamerican Health Organization and the Mexican National Service for Animal and Plant Health, Food Safety of Agri-Food have been fostering capacity building on risk analysis on food safety to agriculture and health ministries/secretaries, and the academic sector throughout the OIRSA member states, Dr. Figueroa adds.
“In 2017, in order to reduce training costs and encompass the broadest possible number of trained people, OIRSA is strengthening its virtual schools with several on-line courses covering food safety related subjects, including food safety audits in animal and plant production systems, and training trainers on GAP and GLPP, and risk analysis on food safety,” he says.
One of the OIRSA´s greatest challenges, Dr. Figueroa contends, is to get a greater commitment from most of the countries in building a robust and sustainable food safety system for both local and export agri-food products.
On May 24 and 25, 2016, IICA and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) held a training course on food safety auditing, which was attended by some 30 academics, technical personnel of official inspection services, and IICA specialists from Central America and the Dominican Republic.
Convened in Lincoln, the event was part of the collaborative activities of the Regional Virtual Food Inspection School for Central America and the Dominican Republic (ERVIA), the IICA initiative that seeks to improve public health and facilitate trade by providing training in modern and harmonized inspection procedures.
The workshop came about as a result of previous interactions with IICA, when UNL first collaborated from April to December in 2013 in a School for Inspectors (part of ERVIA) in Central America by providing curriculum content, according to Andreia Bianchini, PhD, a UNL associate professor of food science, and Jayne Stratton, PhD, a UNL research associate professor of food science.
During the training session at UNL, participants learned about auditing principles and processes, and legal and ethical standards of conduct, along with how to prepare audit reports, Drs. Bianchini and Stratton relate.
“Participants told us the program was beneficial to their professional development, as they had the opportunity to receive training on a standardized set of principles with regards to auditing,” they report. “Having the ability to discuss the activities proposed by the program among a group with such diverse backgrounds, including industry, government, and academia, enhanced the learning process. We believe that this will ultimately improve the quality and safety of the food production systems in the countries where they work.”
“Since food produced by other countries in America is consumed worldwide, it is critical that food quality and safety systems there have high-quality auditing programs,” Dr. Bianchini emphasizes.
“Having all specialists meet in one place here at UNL provided an opportunity to understand the differences between countries and share knowledge,” Dr. Stratton adds. “In that way, those least experienced benefited from contributions made by specialists who are more familiar with the topic. We may offer the program at UNL again in the future, but now we are concentrating efforts on finishing the curriculum for the online school for auditors.”
UNL is preparing all the curriculum for the ERVIA School for Auditors (under development), including online videos, lectures, activities, and reading materials, Drs. Bianchini and Stratton point out.
According to Drs. Bianchini and Stratton, the 2016 UNL workshop in food safety auditing and the School for Auditors were/are both based on ISO 19011. The School for Auditors is to be a continuing education program, rather than a certification program under the virtual food inspection school initiative.
Virtual Food Inspection School
Implemented by IICA in 2013, ERVIA was financed by the Geneva, Switzerland-based Standards and Trade Development Facility (STDF) to strengthen capacities in food inspection, improve safety, contribute to the protection of public health, and facilitate trade.
The STDF is a global partnership that supports developing countries in building their capacity to implement international sanitary and phytosanitary standards, guidelines, and recommendations as a means to improve their human, animal, and plant health status and ability to gain or maintain access to markets.
Collaborators forming an Academic Council for ERVIA and serving as proctors for the program include the University of Belize, Costa Rica’s National Food Science and Technology Center, the University of Costa Rica, José Matías Delgado University in El Salvador, Rafael Landívar University in Guatemala, the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua León, Honduras National Agricultural University, the University of Panama, and ISA University in the Dominican Republic.
“The ultimate goal of ERVIA is to provide training for all inspectors in the eight countries, in the area of food safety inspection and food safety auditing,” says Ana Marisa Cordero Peña, a specialist with IICA’s Programa de Sanidad Agropecuaria e Inocuidad de Alimentos (Agricultural Health and Food Safety Program). “The school will also be open to persons from the private sector who are interested in obtaining the diploma, either on their own or with financing from their employers.”
The Academic Council, which includes one academic institution from each participating country, is one of the key factors for the success of the project, Cordero Peña emphasizes. “The Council has been responsible for providing technical support for the virtual course by administering tests and also issuing diplomas from the school in each country,” she mentions.
The general objective of ERVIA, Cordero Peña says, is to improve the safety of fresh or processed foods originating in the region and thus to facilitate trade and improve public health through harmonized modern inspection procedures and food auditing techniques carried out by a team of properly trained food inspectors in every country of the region.
“Within ERVIA’s Virtual Inspection School, two installments of virtual Food Inspection Training have been delivered, with about 400 inspectors from Central America and the Dominican Republic trained,” she relates. “Food auditing training in English and Spanish will be available in the IICA virtual platform at the beginning of 2017, which is the training being developed by the UNL group. In light of the IICA project being completed in June 2016, a sustainability strategy was developed with support of the universities, Central American governments, and IICA to continue working on these issues.”
“This initiative responds to the interest of countries in strengthening capacities of public sector professionals in food inspection and food auditing topics and, in turn, contributing to the production of safe food for local and international consumers,” Cordero Peña says.