Everything old is new again—and not just because the recession has customers creatively repurposing their Nintendos into lunch boxes. When it comes to food, Americans are a nostalgic lot.
More than 1 million foreigners have become legal permanent residents in the U.S. each year since 2005, says David Browne, senior analyst at Mintel, a
Chicago-based market research firm. “This escalating group is influencing the American palate.” Hispanic foods make up the bulk—62 percent—of ethnic food sales, but Asian and Indian foods are doing well, climbing 11 percent and 35 percent, respectively, from 2004 to 2008.
But it’s not just familiar foods from back home that Americans crave. Ancient grains and superfoods from Latin America and Asia are newly popular too.
“Sales have taken off,” confirms Bob Leventry, who along with his wife, Marjorie, cofounded Inca Organics, an Athens, Ga.-based company that imports organic quinoa, primarily from Ecuador. “They’ve exceeded Ecuador’s ability to gear up to grow more. To keep as many customers happy as we can, we’re almost rationing the quinoa.”
But with food-safety concerns dominating even domestic foods, consumers want to know: Is imported food safe?
Sticks and stones
The Leventrys recall how, back in the old days, before quinoa was popular and commanding a higher price per pound, growers would throw rocks into shipments to drive up the weight. Now that a market for it has been established, such incidents are rare. And even if they did occur, the shipments would never make it to the U.S.
“Our customers now require a certificate of analysis of the product—random samples taken throughout the shipment and tested for things like salmonella, E. coli, mold, yeast, a bunch of stuff. It’s also tested for cleanliness—that there are no rocks or metal pieces,” Bob Leventry says. The testing is performed by a third-party accredited certifying lab.
Zach Adelman, president of Novato, Calif.-based Navitas Naturals, which markets goji berries, açai, raw cacao and other “new old” foods from Peru, Colombia, Brazil, Mexico, Indonesia, India and China, says Navitas performs additional analytical testing for microbes on its end. “It’s really up to us to determine the products are safe. … We look at their product specifications and recent certificates of analysis to see how the product is testing out, and then do testing of our own before we enter into any kind of purchase agreement” with a grower, he says. “I would say any company that has any sort of integrity would be running these types of tests—it is quite common.”
Matthew Nussbaum, CEO of New Orleans-based natural foods importer TA International, echoes this approach. “We visit plants and farms, and we take independent samples for testing. From the very beginning, we get USDA or FDA involved—we don’t wait until we have a container going through U.S. Customs and hope for the best.” Instead, Nussbaum says he ships samples to the agencies in advance. “They conduct their tests and write us a memo describing any deficiencies. Then we go to work on the production side to address any concerns, and retest.”
Nussbaum and Adelman also make sure their products go through the Food and Drug Administration’s Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points system, a program that identifies physical, chemical and biological risks before the product is finished. While HACCP is voluntary for all products except fish, seafood and juice, the FDA says it has been “widely adopted by the food industry as an integral part of … good manufacturing practices.”
The promise of organic
Certifications such as kosher, halal, vegan or even ISO 9000—an international standard for quality management—may appear on labels. “All the certifications that are available to us here in the United States are available to most suppliers around the world,” Adelman says.
A U.S. Department of Agriculture organic seal may proffer additional reassurance to consumers skeptical about buying food from Third World countries. “The first thing we look for is organic certification because that will show a variety of steps along the way have been audited, from the growers to the processors,” Adelman says. Bob Leventry says even the shipping container is inspected, to make sure it’s lined with paper. “You don’t know what was in that container before.”
“People think that organic certification is extremely expensive” and out of reach for impoverished growers, Adelman says, but it’s really more about showing integrity throughout the supply chain. “In Peru, most of the products are farmed organically just by nature. They don’t really have the money to invest in pesticides.”
Despite a patchwork of global organic standards, and programs set forth by organizations like the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements to standardize them, there is only one set of regulations that is accepted stateside. “To be sold in the United States as organic, [products] have to meet the National Organic Program standards,” says Barbara Haumann, spokeswoman for the Organic Trade Association.
No one knows exactly how much organic food is imported. “It would take an act of Congress to actually set up codes to track specific organic imports,” Haumann says. The USDA estimates the 2002 value was somewhere between $1 billion and $1.5 billion, and accounted for 12 percent to
18 percent of organic retail sales.
That doesn’t mean it’s easy for imported organics to get to market. “Take açai juice,” Nussbaum says. “In the beginning, no one knew what it was, so informational campaigns had to get it to move. This is expensive for the importer, and risky. One or two companies roll the dice and if it goes, everyone gets on the bandwagon.”
The Leventrys faced a similar challenge. “There was no market [for quinoa] in Ecuador. They thought it was a dirty pig food” because it was grown by the less-respected indigenous population there, Marjorie Leventry says. But she is a nutritionist and saw potential in the ancient grain, and set out to bring it to the U.S.
“Our customers are distributors and food manufacturers, like Bob’s Red Mill, Seeds of Change and Mary’s Gone Crackers. It was their marketing efforts, their money that built the demand, not ours,” says Bob Leventry.
Even getting picked up by big distributors, like UNFI, can be difficult. “If you’re starting out and on a low marketing budget, a big distributor will pay no attention to your product,” Nussbaum says. Leventry agrees. “We have never used UNFI—or I should say, they have never used us.” Instead, both companies cite a mélange of smaller distributors, like Nature’s Best and Neshaminy Valley.
Adelman’s experience was no different. “I got rejected by UNFI and pretty much every distributor, to the point it was almost the end of the line for us. I introduced two more products and was able to land Whole Foods direct. I broke through with perseverance and a little bit of luck.”
Laurie Budgar is a Longmont, Colo.-based freelance writer and editor who thinks Ecuadorian pigs have all the luck.