Food safety message remains critical to produce imports

12/16/2011 01:29:00 PM
Andy Nelson

Despite recent scares involving cantaloupes and papayas from other shipping regions, importers of Central American and Caribbean fruit are confident consumers will feel safe eating their products.

Eddie Caram, general manager of Princeton, Fla.-based New Limeco LLC, is convinced his company’s stringent food safety and traceability programs have helped the company increase its weekly root vegetable shipments from Central America from one to two containers per week.

“I think food safety and traceability have become more and more important for buyers and consumers,” Caram said.

New Limeco makes a point of stamping its food safety bona fides right on the boxes it ships to customers. And the company isn’t alone.

“I think the industry has done a pretty good job” of advertising its commitment to food safety, he said.

Consumers are a little more comfortable purchasing items from Central America and the Caribbean, since that educational effort has increased, Caram said.

New Limeco can now trace all of its shipments back to its growers in Central America, Caram said. The company is working with those growers on getting them third-party certified, too.

Homestead, Fla.-based Brooks Tropicals Inc. sources its Caribbean Red papayas from Belize.

Still, the Mexican papaya recall last summer, and subsequent tighter regulation on Mexican product coming over the border, didn’t come out without some trepidation for Central American and Caribbean importers, said Mary Ostlund, Brooks’s director of marketing.

“Don’t think I wasn’t concerned that consumers would walk by my Caribbean Reds on the shelf,” Ostlund said.

Fortunately for Brooks and other importers of Central American and Caribbean papayas, there seemed to be little “guilt by association” from the Mexican situation.

“Although I did receive some e-mails asking about our papayas, we didn’t see any drop in consumer demand,” Ostlund said.

Brooks Tropicals does third-party food safety audits on its fields, harvesting crews, packing houses and distribution centers, Ostlund said.

Consumers may not know that. But they might find out the hard way if Brooks and other importers didn’t have such rigorous food safety programs, Ostlund said.

“I don’t think the consumer is where the industry is on food safety,” she said.

“The average consumer doesn’t know enough to ask about food safety audits. They just want to eat, without worry, the food they buy from us.”

The Mexican papaya quarantine was unfortunate, but the industry could learn valuable lessons from it, said Homero Levy de Barros, president of Plantation, Fla.-based HLB Tropical Food.

“We feel bad for those that had to go through that, but the good thing is it will force growers to be more professional,” he said.

The outbreak will likely weed out growers who aren’t willing to get their food safety programs up to snuff, Levy de Barros said.

Importers of Central American cantaloupes are still smarting from the hangover effects of the listeria outbreak traced to a Colorado cantaloupe shipper in September, said Lou Kertesz, vice president of sales for Plantation-based Fresh Quest Inc.

Central American shippers are doing everything they can to regain consumer confidence, Kertesz said.

“The offshore industry has taken every precaution necessary,” he said.

And it could pay off. Kertesz expects markets to rebound in December, and Fresh Quest looks forward to strong holiday pull this year.



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