The Privilege of Safe Food?
By: Drew Barkley
This past spring break, I was fortunate enough to travel with the Center for Foodborne Illness Research and Prevention to Guatemala for work related to the Prenatal Exposure to Mycotoxins project (https://foodsafety.osu.edu/research/pesar). In the middle of our trip, our schedule changed so that we had an extra unplanned day in Guatemala City. So, we decided to tour a fruit and vegetable cooperative processing facility that some of our Guatemalan colleagues were able to arrange. We met our guide and then proceeded to suit up in booties, masks, and lab coats before entering the facility. After a thorough handwash and step through the bleach pool, we were getting a look at the processing lines. The day we were there, they were packaging primarily French beans and carrots. We were able to see where the raw product arrived, how it was washed and packaged, where finished product was stored, and what happened to rejected product. Overall, I was impressed with their food safety measures that included temperature-controlled rooms, good worker hygiene, microbiological and pesticide testing, and traceback codes.
While this was my first time touring a fruit and vegetable processing facility, it was not my first time touring an export processing facility in a foreign country. Two summers ago, I participated in the Farm-to-Table program in Chile. There, we were able to tour salmon, dairy, and deli meat processing facilities. Two of the facilities, the dairy and salmon, were international exporters and had strong food safety measures implemented, similar to the fruit and vegetable cooperative in Guatemala. The deli meat processing facility only supplied the national market, and the difference in food safety was noticeable. Raw and finished products were stored in the same room, floors were not as clean, and some of the product was stored under a leaky air conditioner. The stark differences highlighted the higher standards that must be met for export as compared to the domestic standards for some developing countries.
Remembering my experience in Chile reminded me that the fruit and vegetable cooperative, as an exporter to the US, had to meet higher standards set by the United States Food and Drug Administration. A national producer may not have the same food safety measures in place. This was made a little more obvious when they informed us that rejected product was taken to the local market to sell. So all of this begged the question, shouldn’t the national market have the same quality and safe food as in the export market? It’s an economic question of course, without a clear answer. Addressing this gap requires balances to be struck between food safety, food waste, capacity, costs, and so many more. If anything, the next time I go to the grocery store, I will appreciate the measures put in place to ensure my food is safe, understanding that many people in the world do not have that privilege.
Graduate Research Associate
CFAES Department of Food Science and Technology