Global trade in agricultural products is booming. Around the world, billions of dollars in food products move across borders every year. Keeping that food safe is a top priority of exporters and importers, but inspection procedures vary widely from country to country.
Food exporters trying to enter the U.S. market face some tough obstacles. Food safety standards in the United States are some of the most rigorous in the world, and exporters have complained for years that they sometimes do not have adequate information about how to get their products through U.S. inspection procedures.
Now the Department of Agriculture is addressing those concerns. The Department recently established the Food Safety Institute of the Americas, in Miami, Florida. The Institute is to share information and develop programs aimed at improving food inspection measures in the region.
Linda Swacina, the executive director of the Institute says inspection procedures vary widely in the region.
"One of the issues we have run into is establishing equivalence, with countries that want to ship meat, poultry, and egg products to the United States," she explained. "So in order to do that you have to have an equivalent system of inspection. We have had some difficulties with that, and we think one of the reasons is that they do not have adequate permanent education and training programs for their government inspectors. So that is one group of people we want to focus on."
The new institute will work closely with governments and regional organizations such as the Pan American Health Organization to develop programs aimed at improving food-safety training programs in the Americas.
Linda Swacina says the private sector can also benefit.
"We do want to have our focus broader than just government, however," she added. "We do want to include training programs for individuals who are in college, and who want to make food safety their specialty. Also for technical people working inside of plants. We want to work at all levels, people working at retail establishments, what have you."
Miami is a major gateway for agricultural products entering the United States. Americans now import about 11 percent of their food and that number is expected to rise, as the United States signs free trade accords with countries and regional blocs across the hemisphere.
Linda Swacina says better food inspection procedures in the hemisphere could help that process.
"Our goal is not necessarily to increase trade," she explained. "Our goal is to improve public health and food safety throughout the Americas. We believe we will benefit trade, because there is no way it will not, as everybody, including the United States improves their inspection programs, and improves the safety of their meat, poultry and egg products, and improves the public health of their own communities. That is a benefit to trade, to economies and it is a benefit to public health."
Linda Swacina says eventually the Food Safety Institute of the Americas will be organized into nine so-called colleges, organized along academic lines, and made up of experts who will be able to share and coordinate information on every aspect of food safety in the Americas.