San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

U.S. Food Inspectors Head to the Source

It’s been a little over a year since the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) opened a regional office in Costa Rica. Their aim is to regulate food and medical products before they enter the United States and to catch potentially costly mislabeling and misrepresentation mistakes at their source.

Less than a month ago, NSF International, a nonprofit, nongovernmental organization that certifies food safety, joined the FDA in San José,

sharing their mission of ensuring high standards for Latin America food exports to the U.S.

The two new offices are a result of a shrinking world, where products move faster from place to place and more new items enter the market every day.

“The world has changed. It’s no longer possible for any country, whether it’s Costa Rica, Mexico, Brazil or the United States, to adequately inspect all of the products that enter our countries (in order to) control their safety and quality,” said Paul Seligman, San José-based director of the FDA’s Latin American operations.

“We really need to head off problems before products are shipped,” he continued. “Therefore, our primary purpose here … is to provide assistance and advice to ensure that products exported are labeled properly, are free of any contaminants and are produced to the highest standards.”

The 10,000-employee, $3.2 billion FDA opened their six-person office at the U.S. Embassy in Rohrmoser to help Latin American producers navigate FDA regulations and successfully reach the U.S. market.

They chose Costa Rica as headquarters because of its stable environment, willing collaborators, and easy access to related agencies such as the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture.

“It’s been a very exciting and gratifying first year,” said Seligman. “Our first objective was to get to know people, get to know Latin America and understand its regulatory systems, its resources and its talent. … And people have been very welcoming.”

But Seligman and his employees are not sitting in their air-conditioned embassy offices inspecting pineapples for inconsistencies or running tests on coffee beans.

“The review process is still conducted in the United States,” Seligman said, explaining that his office has a broader reach, acting in an advisory capacity for producers and exporters in 44 countries and territories throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. “Our job is to make sure that one way or the other, when things are exported, they are done so properly and appropriately.”

One of the most common issues his office faces relates to correct product labeling. A shipment of crackers, for example, can sit in U.S. ports for days simply because individual packets are missing the name of a distributor, or because they are labeled in Spanish.

“It’s just what you put on the outside of a package. There is no reason why that shouldn’t be correct,” Seligman said.

He said one of the greatest challenges for the FDA’s San José office is to stem the growing tide of falsified or adulterated products. Each day there are new products entering the market that carry only a portion of an active ingredient or no active ingredient at all. The most common of these cases are drugs purporting to be Viagra or other erectile dysfunction products, according to Seligman.

Another challenge is to meet the demands of the 44 countries and territories for which his office is responsible.

That might be a place that NSF International can help, said Sonia Acuña-Rubio, managing director of the Latin American region for the organization.

“We have a lot of clients in the United States that get their food from Central America, so we saw a need to open an office here,” she said. NSF International, founded in 1944, serves nearly 22,000 clients worldwide, including Costco and Walmart, and certifies products that meet established benchmarks. The organization already has given its stamp of approval to two Costa Rican bottled water suppliers.

Asked to explain the difference between the two offices, Acuña-Rubio said the FDA checks products, but they don’t certify them. “For the FDA, it’s a great help to have companies like us working with suppliers,” she said. “We ensure that producers meet FDA standards and the standards of our clients all over the world.”

NSF International said that food exports from the region could increase rapidly if food safety and quality standards are improved. Currently, food exports from Latin America and the Caribbean account for $66 billion, which is 12 percent of the global food trade.

“Our Costa Rica office will enable NSF to better serve the growing number of processors and manufacturers in Latin America who are exporting their products to the United States,” said Kevan P. Lawlor, NSF International President and CEO. “The new office will also help businesses in Central America and the Caribbean meet the increasing demand for food safety and certification services in this region.”


Food for Thought

¦ The FDA examines less than 1 percent of U.S. food imports.

¦ Around 15 to 20 percent of the food consumed in the United States originates from outside its borders.


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