Review of Food Safety Needs to Export from the USA
By Omar Oyarzabal PhD., Senior Consultant for Food Services
Exporting foods from the USA to other countries, such as Canada and those in the EU block, has been a lucrative option for some segments of the food industry. This short article reviews some or the current trade with the European Union (EU), and our neighbors, Canada and Mexico. I also summarize some key food safety standards used worldwide and some aspects to consider when planning to export food products to other countries.
Trade with the European Union (EU)
Historically, the USA has exported a significant amount of agricultural goods, including foods, to the EU, which is the fourth largest export market for U.S. agricultural products after Canada, Mexico, and China. In 2021, the total exports to the EU were approximately $49 billion. However, we continue to run a trade deficit in agricultural commodities with the EU, with a gap of $24 billion in 2021.
The top five agricultural products exported to the EU are tree nuts ($2.8 billion), soybeans ($2.2 billion), forest products ($755 million), fish and fish products ($960 million), and distilled spirits ($565 million). But other commodities, including feeds, meals, soybean meal, and vegetable oils other than soybean oil, have increased more than 20% in total revenues, individually, from 2020 to 2021. Nevertheless, there are still some non-tariff barriers that remain in place limiting the possibilities to expand the trade with the EU.
The United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement
The United States-Mexico-Canada agreement (USMCA) from 2020 is an attempt to boost the trading with our neighboring countries. Canada accounts for approximately 14% of total exported U.S. food and agricultural products. In dollars, that figure means approximately $24 billion in 2021. Canada is also the top market for processed food exports, with approximately $14 billion in 2021. The processed food exported to Canada represents different prepared snacks, non-alcoholic beverages, chocolate and confectionery, and prepared/preserved meats.
Food Safety Standards Worldwide
Food safety standards vary depending on the location of a food business. The laws that cover food safety standards are always complex, with a large variation in the implementation even within countries. Different countries have different interpretations of what is safe for their residents, and there may be requirements based on lifestyle, tradition, quality of food ingredients. But most of these standards are science based and therefore are all achievable and needed to protect public health from food safety hazards.
Many standards follow the guidelines from the Codex Alimentarius, which include the development and implementation of food safety programs based on the HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points) principles. Over the years, we have seen a large variation in how different countries interprets these HACCP principles, but the easy access to scientific publications and regulatory guidelines in the last 15 years has contributed to a more standardization of the HACCP plans by commodities regardless of the country of origin.
In the 1990s, food retailers started to organize audit systems for their suppliers. There were many different auditing schemes that emerge in those years. Several of these schemes are now part of the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI), which comprises more than 44 retailers and manufacturers from the Consumer Goods Forum (CGF). Each of these schemes develops its own food safety standards, such as Safe Quality Food (SQF), or Food Safety System Certification (FSSC) 22000. Thus, each of these audit schemes has its own benchmarking approach and some may be preferred more by some food manufacturers. These schemes are considered the most comprehensive audits available for the food industry worldwide, and help improve opportunity for international sales.
The incorporation of more specific food safety regulations worldwide in the last 30 years has allowed also for a comparison, that now can be made among different countries, about the food safety performance by country. The Global Food Security Index (GFSI) is the organization that conducts annual evaluations of the food safety regulation by country based on food affordability, availability, sustainability and adaptation, and quality and safety. This last benchmarking allows us to identify the countries that are the top food safety and quality performers (Table 1).
What to Consider When Planning to Export Foods
The first thing to consider is to ensure that the manufacturing facility in the USA is in full compliance with state and federal regulations. Many requirements to move foods across federal borders require, for instance, to have a food facility registration with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) if your food is covered by FDA regulations. In the case of foods covered by the Food Safety and Inspection Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA FSIS), the establishment will have to obtain federal inspection. Many countries require evidence that the manufacturing facility or establishment is in compliance with local (state) and country regulations.
You also need to identify your partners that will physically move the product from your facility to the exit port, and then from the exit port until it reaches the importing country. There are many different brokers and carriers that can help, but each may provide a different type of assistance throughout the process. The good news is that there is no need for export licenses for U.S. food because the U.S. government does not require you to purchase a license to manufacture foods. However, you may have to purchase the appropriate state license to get your business registered within the appropriate agency in charge of food safety in the state where the manufacturing facility or establishment is located.
Understanding if the product will undergo a mandatory check at the border or not when entering the destination country is also important to let you prepare the appropriate documentation that will accompany the product. Most mandatory checks at border control entities apply only to live animals and live plants, or products of animal or plant origin that are not processed. In all these cases, the main risk in the receiving country is the entrance of a foreign, or exotic, animal or plant diseases that may result in extensive economic loss for farmers and the food industry in the importing country.
Finally, you need to familiarize yourselves with the food safety requirements in the receiving country and have a representative, a company for instance, that will be responsible for your product in the country where the products will be sold. This representative of your products should be able to collect the appropriate information, if your products are detained at any point, to share with the detaining authorities to expedite the release of your products. Shipping products to other countries involves a lot of “moving parts” and it is important you are prepared for events that may result in delays or detentions associated to the request of more information to prove the product were safely manufactured.
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