Did it blow you away that low levels of a fungicide that isn’t approved in the U.S. were discovered in some orange juice sold here? Yawn. Or was it the news that Brazil, where the fungicide-laced juice originated, produces a good portion of the orange pulpy stuff we drink? Gasp!
While the former may have sent prices for orange juice for delivery in March down 5.3 percent earlier this week, the latter came as a bombshell to some “Buy American” supporters. But that’s not the only surprise lurking in government data about where the food we eat comes from.
Overall, America’s insatiable desire to chomp on overseas food has been growing. About 16.8 percent of the food that we eat is imported from other countries, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, up from 11.3 percent two decades ago. Here are some other facts:
– Not all juices are treated the same. About 99 percent of the grapefruit juice we drink is produced on American soil, while about a quarter of the orange juice is imported; more than 40 percent of that is from Brazil.
– About half of the fresh fruit we eat comes from elsewhere. That’s more than double the amount in 1975.
– Some 86 percent of the shrimp, salmon, tilapia and other fish and shellfish we eat comes from other countries. That’s up from about 56 percent in 1990.
Better communication (thank you, Internet) and transportation (thank you, faster planes) play a role in all the food importing. And in many cases, it’s just become much cheaper to pay for shipping food from distant countries, where wages are often lower and expensive environmental rules often laxer than in the U.S.
Our expanding population – and bellies – also has made feeding people cheaply more important. The U.S. has about 309 million residents, as of the 2010 U.S. Census. In 1990, that number was about 249 million.
There’s also a shift in our food psychology. New Americans – those who have immigrated from Latin America and other countries – want the foods that they enjoyed back home. Not to mention that Americans in general have come to expect that they should be able to buy blueberries, spinach and other things even when they’re not in season in the U.S.
“This is about the expectation that we’re going to have raspberries when it’s snowing in Ithaca,” said Marion Nestle, a food studies professor at New York University.
Of course, the U.S. government still has high standards when it comes to dining on vittles that were created elsewhere.
For instance, while 85 percent of the apple juice we drink is imported, only about 7 percent of the apples we eat are. Andy Jerardo, an economist at the USDA, says that’s because the juice often comes from China, which produces apples that are inferior for snacking but good for drinking.
And we still get the majority of American dinner staples like wine, red meat and veggies from within the U.S. The U.S. is more inclined to import foods that can be easily stored and won’t spoil quickly. For example, 44 percent of the dry peas and lentils Americans consume are imported.
Also, we’re much less likely to import foods that we already grow a lot of here. Indeed, only about 1 percent of the sweet potatoes we eat – which grow plentifully in states like California and North Carolina – come from outside the nation’s borders. And basically all of our cranberries are from U.S. places like Massachusetts and Oregon.
But stuff like fruit and fish can be a little trickier to gauge.
The USDA’s Kristy Plattner says the percentage of imported fruit has grown because we’re eating more tropical fruits. That’s a result of two things: More Americans have ties to Latino cultures and as a nation, we’re becoming more adventurous eaters.
So, even though we consume fewer apples than we did 30 years ago (about 15.4 pounds per person in the 2010-11 season, down from 19.2 pounds in 1980-81), we eat more mangos (about 2.2 pounds, up from about one-fourth of 1 pound). We also chow on more limes, lemons, kiwi, papayas and avocados.
Fish importing has risen for another reason. The U.S. isn’t building its aquaculture industry, or fish farms, as aggressively as some other countries.
Fish farms supply about half the world’s seafood demand, including about half of U.S. imports, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. But in the U.S., our seafood farms meet less than 10 percent of the country’s demand for seafood.
Lorenzo Juarez, deputy director of the NOAA’s aquaculture office, says the U.S. has stricter environmental and safety standards for its farms. But that’s not to say that the NOAA is opposed to U.S. fish farms.
In fact, the agency sees them as the best way to feed an expanding country, especially in light of USDA recommendations that Americans should expand their seafood intake.
“The amount of fish that can be had sustainably from the wild fisheries is set,” Juarez said. “If we need to increase per-capita consumption, the only way this can happen is through aquaculture.”
In other words, there are only so many fish in the sea.