The trends are stark and unmistakable: Over the last 10 years, fruit and vegetable imports by the United States from other countries have increased sharply with no letup in sight, according to data from USDA.
As of 2010, almost half of the fresh fruit and one-fourth of the vegetables consumed in the U.S. were imported, according to Dr. Luis Ribera, an agricultural economist at the Texas AgriLife Research and Extension Center at Weslaco.
Most of the imports came from North and South America, but an increasing number of fresh fruit imports are coming from China now, Ribera notes.
"China is now the fourth largest importer of fresh vegetables to this country," he says. "That's a concern, especially when you consider the well-publicized problems we had in the past with contaminated Chinese dog food, milk, and baby food."
Other cases of contaminated food include produce from Honduras and Mexico, Ribera adds.
As food-borne illness outbreaks grab headlines, food safety is drawing the attention of lawmakers, according to Dr. Juan Anciso, a Texas AgriLife Extension Service horticulturist and food safety expert.
"Assuring safe food supplies is increasingly important for fresh fruits and vegetables as state and federal government eyes legislation to regulate safety issues, both domestically and internationally, because of past outbreaks," he says.
The increase in perishable food imports is due to cheap labor and favorable growing conditions in China and other countries, Ribera says. But with that comes an inherent and increased risk of contaminated food.
For decades, Chinese officials had been concerned with simply feeding their billion-plus population, Ribera reflects. Now that they are an important food exporter, "China now has to focus on food safety to be sure there are no issues."
Ribera recently was in Shanghai and Beijing, China to present a talk on food safety at a conference of the International Food and Agribusiness Management Association.