2 Years Later, Katrina Offers Food Safety Lesson

August 29, 2007

WASHINGTON (August 29, 2007)—SpongeBob Square Pants, Curious George and Thomas the Tank Engine last week became the latest lead-based casualties in the Chinese toy saga, putting parents on high alert about the quality of imports.

These high-profile product recalls landed on the front page of most major newspapers and remain in the news. But today marks the two-year anniversary of a similar—albeit less publicized—near miss with a basic staple in the country’s food supply.

After Hurricane Katrina ruthlessly battered New Orleans, two of the country’s nine sugar refineries had to temporarily close. In fact, the Domino refinery located near New Orleans’ lower ninth ward was so damaged that many in the industry wondered if it would ever reopen (it did reopen four months later).

Because of reduced refining capacity, America was for the first time forced to import large quantities of refined sugar from Mexico.

But when this sugar showed up, U.S. food manufacturers got a glimpse of what life would be like without America’s sugar producers.

Much of the Mexican product arrived in burlap sacks, which left fibers in the sugar. Antiquated machinery in Mexican refineries mixed metal grindings with the product. And on the long boat ride from Mexico, rodents left their calling cards in sugar that was supposed to be ready to eat upon arrival.

Had it not been for the diligence of U.S. food manufacturers, which have the highest quality standards in the world, some of this dirty sugar could have wound up in the country’s food supply. And that’s a huge deal considering the U.S. Department of Commerce says sugar is an ingredient used in 70% of food manufacturing.

The episode caused U.S. food manufacturers to change their tune about the desire to import more and more sugar.

“Apparently stung by bad experiences with sugar imports after Hurricane Katrina reduced U.S. sugar production in Louisiana, the Sweetener Users Association softened its opposition May 10 to the U.S. sugar program,” the National Journal wrote about the situation following a May 2006 Senate Agriculture Committee hearing on sugar policy.

At that hearing, a vocal sugar policy opponent who works for The Hershey Company testified, “As sugar users, we want and need strong and healthy sugar production and processing. We believe it is in our interest to have a geographically diverse production base in the United States for both sugar beets and sugar cane.”

However, cane and beet growers would not be able to stay in business without a strong sugar policy like the one passed by the U.S. House of Representatives on July 27.

If U.S. producers went out of business, the country would be left vulnerable to dependence on imports from Mexico and other countries that may not adhere to strict U.S. standards. And that would create major headaches for American consumers.

“Just as we are experiencing problems with our dependence on foreign oil, sugar users would have many obstacles to overcome, including sugar quality, consistency, packaging, and the ability of suppliers to make just-in-time deliveries,” wrote the California-based McKeany-Flavell Company in a 2006 study about sugar policy.

The farm bill recently approved by the House has been widely applauded for providing farmers and ranchers with the tools they need to continue producing the world’s safest food supply.

The Senate is expected to take up the farm bill after the August Congressional break, and sugar producers have joined most major agricultural groups in pushing for quick passage.