The Truth About Food Imports + 5 Tips for Eating Locally


With the rise in food-borne illnesses and food contamination incidents – from melamine in pet food and milk products imported from China to our homegrown peanut contamination problems – it’s becoming increasingly important to know where our food comes from. If there’s an outbreak, at least we can know if the food in our cupboards or refrigerators is part of the problem.

Aside from concerns about taste, freshness, and supporting local economies, traceability is another reason to support the burgeoning locavore movement.

Yet, at the same time the locavore movement has been gaining ground, the forces of globalized trade are making it increasingly likely that the food you find in your grocery store has been imported.

According to Food & Water Watch, a stellar consumer advocacy organization, imports of fresh fruits and vegetables have tripled between 1990 and 2007.

Import goods used to be obvious: things like tropical fruits in the Northern Hemisphere or raspberries in January, but now everyday items like potatoes, onions, garlic and tomatoes are likely to be imported.

According to the FDA, imported produce was more than three times as likely to contain Salmonella and Shigella than domestic produce. Imported fruit is four times more likely to have illegal levels of pesticides while imported vegetables are twice as likely to have illegal levels of pesticide residues as domestic fruits and vegetables.

Furthermore, less than 1% of all imported fruits and vegetables are inspected. That’s because as imports have increased, the number of inspectors has decreased (by 20% between 2003 and 2007).

To learn more about what types of specific fruits and vegetables are likely to be imported and where they came from, you can use this handy, interactive shopping cart, The Global Grocer, developed by Food & Water Watch. You’ll never look at your grocery store shelves the same way again.

Ready to go local yet? Here are five simple tips:

1. Shop your Local Farmers’ Market: Can’t find one? Search here.

2. Join a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture): Don’t know where? Search here.

3. Learn what is local and in season in your area: use the Eat Well Guide.

4. Look for Country of Origin labels in the grocery store (the law now requires labels on many items, though there are some exceptions).

5. Grow your own, and find more great tips here.

Image: ellievanhoutte

Vanessa Barrington

Vanessa Barrington is a San Francisco based writer and communications consultant specializing in environmental, social, and political issues in the food system.