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Importing Food in the US

  • Carol Pearson

The United States is known throughout the world for its fertile valleys and great plains and its vast harvests of fruits, vegetables and grains. The US is a major exporter of wheat and corn and soybeans.

But this year, if government predictions are right, the US will spend as much on food imports as it receives for its exports.

If you have a yen for 1,000 year old eggs (preserved duck eggs) and you live in a Virginia suburb of Washington, D.C., you'll find them at the Lucky Oriental Food and Gifts market in Falls Church, Virginia. This small store sells rice from Thailand and the foothills of the Himalayas and delicacies from all over Asia. Most, but not all, of the customers are Asian immigrants according to Le Ming, whose family runs the store.

"We also have a lot of American customers who come in with a recipe and say, 'Can you help me to find this and that,'" says Le Ming.

The imported products stocking the shelves at the Lucky Oriental and other ethnic food markets in the US do not compete with American food products. But they are among the reasons the United States expects to pay as much for importing food as it earns by selling wheat, corn and soybeans abroad this year. A quick check in the produce aisles of any food store, ethnic or otherwise, reveals another reason why the U.S. imports so much food says Gerald Bange, one of the chief economists at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"What we've been seeing over the last several years is a steady increase, especially in those commodities such as tropical products which are not directly competitive with the major commodities that we export," says Gerald Bange.

There are bananas from Colombia, papayas from Belize, cantaloupes from Honduras and nectarines from Chile. Mr. Bange says Americans have the money to pay for imported fruits and vegetables.

"We are seeing a trend up, and a rather steady trend up in our imports, especially of fruits and vegetables. They account for something like 45 percent of our imports now," says Mr. Bange.

The costs of different foods is also a factor according to Megan Provost, an economist with the American Farm Bureau Federation.

"The things that we're importing right now are higher valued products... things that cost more: fruits and vegetables, fresh products, processed goods, whereas what we're exporting are more bulk commodities: corn, soybeans... which just have a lower dollar value. If you look at quantities only, we're actually exporting higher quantities than we're importing, but when you look at dollar values, the things that we're importing cost more," says Ms. Provost.

Another factor hurting U.S. exports is bovine spongiform encephalopathy or BSE, commonly called mad cow disease.

After a cow in the western state of Washington was diagnosed with BSE, Japan and South Korea stopped importing U.S. beef. Gerald Bange says the ban on imported beef is costing U.S. cattle growers in excess of $2 billion dollars.

"If we put that back into the numbers, once that situation becomes resolved, I would expect to see our exports maybe once again, rather than looking to a zero balance of trade, possibly looking to a slight surplus in this year, depending on how soon that situation gets resolved," says Mr. Bange.

Economists also expect the weaker dollar to make US exports cheaper and help boost sales but Gerald Bange says last year's record production of wheat, soybeans and corn worldwide has driven down the prices of much of what the US exports.

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