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Sobering reflections 10 years later

by Tim Linden | September 12, 2011

It was a very difficult time for the produce industry when the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, caused a disruption in the marketplace.

As would be the case on any Tuesday morning in September, there were loads of produce coming from many different parts of the country into New York City. California, Florida and Texas crops were plentiful. The Washington apple season was getting underway. Product from abroad, including mangos and asparagus from South America as well as garlic from China and citrus from Australia, was steaming into U.S. ports of entry up and down the Eastern Seaboard.

“A lot of growers and shippers did have product heading into New York and the Hunts Point Market that had to be diverted,” recalled Matt McInerney, executive vice president of Western Growers Association in Irvine, CA. “The Lincoln Tunnel was closed and I remember that some product was diverted directly to retailers rather than going through Hunts Point. But what I also recall is a spirit of cooperation. There was an overwhelming sense of tragedy, and I recall that the produce community — both buyers and sellers — worked together to solve problems during that difficult time. It was a true collaboration.”

Bruce Klein, director of marketing for Maurice A. Auerbach Inc. in South Hackensack, NJ, recalled the same difficulty in serving New York customers that day. “They closed all the bridges and tunnels and we could only do local deliveries. We had a number of trucks on the road at the time that had to come back.”

He said that it took a little time before business reverted to its normal procedure. “We had a lot of customers in and around Manhattan, and everyone was stunned for several days,” he said. “Many had lost loved ones and things were different, but I don’t think business ever got to the point where it was terrible. It came back pretty quickly.”

But looking back, it is the human stories rather than the business issues that Mr. Klein remembers. “We had one employee here who was out in California and couldn’t get back home because the airports were closed. He ended up driving back in his rental car and I think he made it in three days. And we had a vendor who got stuck in Bentonville, Arkansas, for a week. He got pretty bored.”

Albert Perez, who is the managing member of five-year-old Continental Fresh LLC in Coconut Grove, FL, worked for a different produce importer 10 years ago.

“I recall that at the time we had some vessels headed for the Northeast filled with mangos,” he said. “There were some delays in getting the product cleared and there was a huge loss of business for a while because the country was frozen in disbelief.”

He added that it was a sizable mango crop that year from South America and it was difficult to market it.

“I remember one grower [from another country] calling me the day of the attack and asking me how I thought this would affect mango sales,” Mr. Perez said. “I told him we have much bigger problems than that to worry about.”

Larry Nienkerk, managing partner of Splendid Products LLC in Burlingame, CA, recalled walking the South San Francisco market that fateful September morning when he heard the news. “I watched it on television at one of the market houses. It was tragic. But I don’t recall that it affected us businesswise.”

Frank Ramos had just launched a new customs brokerage business called The Perishable Specialists in Miami, FL, at the time of the attacks.

“I do not recall any immediate problems, but over time it did mean a lot more work that we had to do,” he said. “For the customs brokerage business, the reaction to September 11 was that we had to implement new regulations, train our staff and train the importing community.”

Although it was a long and tedious process, Mr. Ramos said that it was implemented by the government agencies in a very systematic way and it did not create huge problems.

“The new regulations came in a three-step process that we were able to implement,” he said. “Today, it is just the way we do business.”

Mr. Ramos said that a silver lining to the increased regulations was that they “created more work but they weeded out the bad apples in the business who couldn’t comply.”

Jasper Hempel, currently a senior vice president at Western Growers Association, who was a private attorney at the time for a crop-duster association in California, said that one of the more immediate effects for production agriculture following the attacks was the grounding of aircraft, including crop dusters. He could not recall how long it took to lift the ban on crop dusting, but it did take time. After all, he said, fertilizer has been used as a bomb ingredient so government officials took a very cautious approach.

“Finally, the government agencies did come to realize that crop dusters were not a security problem,” he said.

Tom Nassif, president and chief executive officer of Western Growers Association, came aboard the organization in 2002 in time for the implementation of many new regulations spurred by the Sept. 11 attacks. “I recall going to a bioterrorism conference put on by the CIA in 2002. They told us what to look for and to be diligent in protecting our food supply and our water.”

He added that the regulations enacted because of the attacks have not been overly burdensome to the industry but were mostly a prescription for best practices that many in the industry were already following.

For example, the Bioterrorism Act mandates that a company keep detailed records about from whom they receive product and to whom they ship it. This best practice should have been in place at any produce shipping operation, said Mr. Nassif.

He added that the terrible acts of 2001 did not have the impact of closing the borders to undocumented workers who take many jobs in the agricultural field.

“I have said in recent years that the argument during immigration reform debates that we must secure our borders before establishing a thoughtful immigration reform policy is a specious argument,” said Mr. Nassif. “Why are we waiting until now to secure our borders? Why weren’t they secured after September 11? Frankly, I am surprised about how little was done [to secure the borders] after September 11.”

Others made a similar point about other ports of entry.

Mr. Klein of Maurice A. Auerbach Inc. said that the procedures have changed and it does take longer to get product from the piers and the airport, but it is not much of a problem.

Mr. Nienkerk of Splendid said that he is very happy to comply with new regulations concerning the importing of product into the country, indicating that not only are they not burdensome, but they might even be insufficient.

“I’m not sure we should even be talking about it, but frankly sea shipments [coming into the United States] might be the soft underbelly of security in this country,” he said.