Everyday in an average supermarket of the US, products from around 20 countries in the world coexist. Meats, canned goods, manufactures, fruits and vegetables… Exporting to North America seems increasingly accessible for foreign producers and its market doesn’t seem to stop being attractive. However, bringing harvest from the field to the North American supermarkets still presents significant obstacles for the producers.
Sanitary risks in exportations
In 2002, an outbreak of salmonella derived from fruit consumption cost the lives of two people in the US, and was a cause of hospitalization for 18 more. As a result, the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) rejected all cantaloupes from Mexico. In 2007, six shipments of this fruit were rejected for the same reason.
THE REJECTION OF CANTALOUPES BY THE FDA IS NOT AN ISOLATED CASE: FRUITS AND VEGETABLES LEAD THE LIST OF IMPORTED PRODUCTS ON THE US BORDERS WITH A 26.6% INCIDENCE, ABOVE FISH AND SEAFOOD.
The reasons for most rejection in US import products revolve around health violations, damage to packaging integrity, product labeling errors, and failure to properly register the company or its processes.
Preventing the rejection on the exportation of fruits and vegetables to the US
Since sanitary violations are one of the main reasons for rejection in exports to the US, having a system that ensures the sanitation of the harvesting is fundamental to achieve a successful exportation.
The FDA's policy regarding sanitary risks, and specifically the microbial risk in foods such as fruits and vegetables, is very clear: you must work on preventing outbreaks before you rely on corrective measures. Since 1998, the agency has issued a series of directives with the Department of Health and Human Services and the Center for Fruit Health and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN). Since then, it has been a very useful guide for anyone who aspires to export their products to the USA.
IT’S PREFERABLE TO PREVENT THE MICROBIOLOGICAL CONTAMINATION OF FRUITS AND VEGETABLES RATHER THAN JUST TRUSTING THE ACTIONS TO BATTLE THE CONTAMINATION ONCE IT’S PLACED.
The document, publicly searchable, is considered a guide and it doesn’t determine in any way a regulation or obligation on the producers part. However, following its recommendations is very useful to achieve good agricultural practices, therefore, more attractive products for the market.
Completely eliminating microbial risk in export fruits and vegetables is still an unattainable goal, but minimizing it is the responsibility of each producer. Although it isn’t extensive, the list of factors to consider is very useful for good agricultural practices and to prevent sanitary risks:
The water that comes in contact with the crop in activities such as irrigation or application of pesticides presents a wide possibility of contamination by microorganisms. The quality of the water in contact with the edible part of fruits and vegetables should be higher than the one that has minimal contact with the area.
B) Manure and solid municipal organic waste
There are multiple treatments to reduce levels of pathogenic microorganisms in manure. Passive treatments, such as the waiting period before applying manure, depend on fluctuations in temperature, humidity and ultraviolet rays. Also, the actives, such as pasteurization, heat drying, anachronistic digestion, etc. Require greater management and investment. (P.24)
C) Health and hygiene of workers
Although this factor should be basic for the reduction of sanitary risks, it’s common for employees with infections to continue working with fruits and vegetables, increasing the risk of foodborne diseases.
Training the employees on good hygiene practices and on identifying the symptoms of infectious diseases is key to the safe production of fruits and vegetables.
D) Sanitary facilities
Controlling sewage and other waste reduces the possibility of contaminating fruits and vegetables, protecting both employees and consumers. Toilets and lavatories should be easily accessible and well stocked and clean.
E) Sanitation on the field
The good practices on the field include the cleaning of the storage facilities, disposal of damaged packaging and cleaning of containers and buckets before use.
The fruits and vegetables that are washed, cooled and packed on the field must avoid contamination with manure and solid waste.
F) Cleaning of the packing facilities
The dust and mud of the fruit and vegetables must be cleaned before they reach the packing facilities. The platforms, containers and buckets must be cleaned before to be used to transport fruits and vegetables. The proper refrigeration of the facilities also guarantees a longer useful life.
When fruits and vegetables leave the field to the market, they are not exempt from the risk of microbiological contamination. Transport vehicles must be kept clean and maintain appropriate temperatures to preserve the quality and safety of fruits and vegetables.
THE RULE OF GOLD FOR SUCCESSFUL EXPORT OF FRUITS AND VEGETABLES IS TO HAVE A PRODUCT OF EXCELLENT QUALITY.
It’s true: the exportation of fruits and vegetables to the US requires a process and formalities that often get all the attention of producers. However, this doesn’t have to skip a basic point: for a successful export, the first thing to look out for is the quality of the products.
The attention that fruit and vegetable producers provide to each of these factors, suggested by the FDA, will be reflected in their quality, reducing microbial risk and the possibility of shipload rejection at customs.
"Guide to Minimize Microbial Risk in Foods for Fresh Fruits and Vegetables". U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Food and Drug Administration, Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, USA, 1998.
"More than a fourth of FDA import refusals are for fruits, vegetables", on Food Safety News, Coral Breach, 2016.
"What do Border Rejections tell us about Trade Standards Compliance of Developing Countries?" UNIDO Working Paper, 2011