U.S. food safety overhaul threatens global farmers

Value Chains

U.S. food safety overhaul threatens global farmers

More than 80 percent of the snow peas eaten in the United States come from Guatemala. But the smallholder farmers that grow the peas may not be able to export them next year due to recent FDA rule changes. Photo: Andrea Nguyen (flickr).

Farmers worldwide stake their fortunes on the global food trade.

For instance, people in Guatemala don’t typically eat snow peas. But more than 50,000 Guatemalan smallholder farmers plant snow peas each year to cash in on U.S. appetites. The country supplies more than 80 percent of the snow peas eaten in the United States, a value of $140 million.

But that income may soon disappear.

In the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s first major overhaul since 1938, new food safety requirements will soon demand higher standards of accountability than most smallholder farmers can currently provide.

Signed into law in 2011, the Food Safety Modernization Act allows the FDA to monitor every step of the food production process. Congress is appropriating $1.4 billion to support the new rules in an effort to prevent foodborne illnesses, which cause 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths in the U.S. each year.

The act is, in part, a response to an increasingly globalized food supply. Today, 20 percent of fresh vegetables and 50 percent of fresh fruit eaten in the U.S. comes from abroad.

Traditionally, the FDA inspects food imports at the border. But the flow of imported produce has doubled in the last decade. Border inspections now cover less than 2 percent of all imported food products.

The new law shifts the burden of proving food safety to farmers and distribution centers.

The FDA will require imported food to be certified as meeting U.S. safety standards. The importer will shoulder the costs of becoming certificated and will be liable for noncompliance.

“The responsibility for safe food must move upstream in the supply chain, closer to the source of the food,” the FDA said in a report last spring.

The final implementation of the law is June 15, 2015. Specific rules and regulations are still being drafted, but farmers need to start making changes now to meet next year’s deadline. The problem is that many farmers around the world won’t be able to afford to make those changes.

Farmers need new technology

New traceability requirements will likely be the most challenging for smallholder farmers. In order to better detect and control outbreaks of foodborne illness, the FDA is expected to require that all produce be traceable back to the individual farm.

Pen and paper accounting isn’t enough. The FDA wants electronic records, accessible within 24-48 hours, that detail who handled the product and how it moved through the supply chain.

Big companies will have little trouble meeting this requirement. In Latin America, for example, traceability technology is commonplace on large, corporate farms. But for smallholder farmers, like Guatemala’s snow pea growers, most of the existing traceability software is expensive and ill-suited for their needs.

A possible solution

One of the more promising solutions is Farmforce. Designed specifically for the smallholder farmer and tested in Kenya, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Ghana and Zimbabwe, the software can be used on a low-cost mobile phone. Among its functions, Farmforce tracks inventory, finances and food safety concerns, such as pesticide use and post-harvest storage temperatures.

Improved record-keeping can reveal areas for improvement. For example, roughly 25 percent of produce grown by Guatemala’s smallholder farmers ends up rejected or spoiled. Reducing these losses could help recoup the cost of new technology.

Ultimately, global farmers must find a way to meet the new FDA requirements or lose access to the valuable U.S. market. The loss will not only hurt farmers; U.S. consumers are likely to see less produce diversity and have to forgo favorite foods, like snow peas.

If farmers can prepare for next year’s roll-out of the new rules with accessible technology, a potentially devastating requirement could transform into a win-win situation--for food safety and for the farmers who depend on U.S. sales.

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