NEW YORK – Americans are finding some surprises lurking in U.S. government about where the food they eat comes from.
One food revelation came when low levels of a fungicide that isn’t approved in the U.S. were discovered in some orange juice sold here. It was then revealed that Brazil, where the fungicide-laced juice originated, produces a good portion of the orange pulpy stuff Americans drink.
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.
Overall, America’s insatiable desire to chomp on overseas food has been growing. About 16.8 percent of the food that Americans 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 Americans drink is produced on U.S. 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 Americans 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 Americans 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.
The country’s 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 been a shift in Americans’ food psychology. New Americans — those who have immigrated from Latin America and elsewhere — 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.
Of course, the U.S. government still has high standards when it comes to dining on foods that were created elsewhere.
For instance, while 85 percent of the apple juice Americans drink is imported, only about 7 percent of the apples they 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.
The majority of American dinner staples like wine, red meat and vegetables are 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, Americans are much less likely to import foods that already are grown a lot here. Indeed, only about 1 percent of the sweet potatoes Americans eat — which grow plentifully in states like California and North Carolina — come from outside the nation’s borders. And basically all of the cranberries are from U.S. states 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 Americans are eating more tropical fruits. That’s a result of two things: More Americans have ties to Latino cultures and as a nation, people are becoming more adventurous eaters.
So, even though Americans consume fewer apples than they did 30 years ago, about 15.4 pounds, or 7 kilograms, per person in the 2010-11 season, down from 19.2 pounds, or 8.7 kilograms,in 1980-81, they eat more mangos, about 2.2 pounds, or 1 kilogram, up from about one-fourth of 1 pound (100 grams). Americans also consumed 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., seafood farms meet less than 10 percent of the country’s demand for seafood.
Lorenzo Juarez, deputy director of 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.