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Adequate staffing for expanded port of entry a concern to FPAA

by Rand Green | December 01, 2011

NOGALES, AZ — The Fresh Produce Association of the Americas, here, spends a great deal of its time and resources every year dealing with issues related to transportation and logistics, and particularly those having to do with getting produce moved expeditiously from Mexico across the border and into the warehouses in Nogales.

Lance Jungmeyer, seen here speaking at an educational session during the 43rd Nogales Produce Convention & Golf Tournament held Nov. 3-5 in Tubac, AZ.

Trans-border trade should be facilitated by the major expansion of the facilities at the port of Mariposa, here, which now is under way, with added commercial lanes being phased in beginning January 2012 and the final completion of the project slated for 2014.

But the FPAA is concerned that the millions of dollars being spent to expand the physical facilities will achieve little if funding is not available to staff the additional lanes with customs personnel.

At the association’s 43rd Nogales Produce Convention, held early in November in Tubac, AZ, one educational session was devoted to discussing the Mariposa reconfiguration, how the construction was progressing and how the project may affect the area’s produce businesses during the coming season.

“One of the issues we talked about in that session was the issue of getting adequate staffing at the port of entry because they are building this big, awesome port and we don’t see that the government is moving fast enough to add customs officers,” said FPAA President Lance Jungmeyer in an interview with The Produce News Nov. 15. “So they might be going from four commercial lanes to eight commercial lanes, but we are not sure they will be able to staff them at a much higher level than they do already.”

If there are twice as many lanes but half of them are closed, a lot of money has been spent with little achieved.

“To the credit of customs, they have agreed to keep the port open during the whole construction process,” Mr. Jungmeyer said. “From the construction end and from the logistics end, they are moving forward.” But even if the number of commercial lanes doubles as scheduled in January, the port needs more customs officers in order to move produce across the border expeditiously without costly delays to the perishable commodities.

“The new port is going to help us a lot when they open,” said Jerry Havel, director of sales and marketing at Fresh Farms, here. “The big thing is trying to make sure that the government does the funding on it” to assure that “we have enough employees and personnel down here to run it efficiently. We are going to have a beautiful port. It would be a shame if we didn’t get funding” to operate the added lanes. “Everyone in town” is working to try to make the government aware of the importance of having the facility adequately staffed, he said.

Food safety is another major concern of FPAA. “We are doing a lot of education with our members these days about food safety,” Mr. Jungmeyer said. “In September, we had a Food Safety Modernization Act workshop.” The day before the Nogales convention, “we had PMA come in and do a Fresh Connections event. The big topic “ also was the Food Safety Modernization Act, along with a discussion of traceability and what companies need to do to fit into this paradigm.

Distributors and growers of Mexican produce “are all interested in providing the highest quality and safest produce available,” he said. “You just cannot afford to not be on top of your game when it comes to this, and that will only continue to be more important.”

In the Mexican produce trade, “we continue to see more people engaged in traceability,” he said. “They want to make sure that they are compliant so that when a retailer comes to them and says, ‘You need to be compliant on traceability,’ they are ready.”

Another area of concern for the association is finding ways to get results from microbial and pesticide-residue testing back more expeditiously, Mr. Jungmeyer said. Too often, a test that should be back in three to five days maximum is coming back seven to 10 working days later, and sometimes even later than that. For most kinds of produce, the product would not even be sellable after that long and will need to be thrown away. Or if it is sellable, about all that can be done is to ship it to Los Angeles on consignment and just hope for the best.

That is a big problem at the border, and FPAA continues to work with the FDA both locally and nationally to try to address that issue, he said.

One thing that would help is for the FDA to put a mobile lab in Nogales, he said. The FDA already has mobile labs, and if one were located in Nogales during the season, it would shave days off of the time a tested load had to be detained while awaiting test results.

In addition, “one of the things that we are really pushing for” is “to encourage the FDA to move quicker toward a rapid testing mechanism,” he said. “I am trying to work with United, Western Growers, Texas Produce and other groups” toward that end.

There are tests that can return results in a day or even in a matter of hours depending on what kind of testing it is, “but the FDA will probably tell you, ‘We haven’t tested those tests; we don’t know if we trust them.’ Our response is, ‘We’ll do it privately,’ sampling produce by both the old and the new method and comparing to determine whether the new methods are reliable,” he said.

“I’m not criticizing the FDA. They’ve got a very tall order. They’ve got American lives to protect, and I don’t take that lightly. Neither do any of the shippers here. We can’t expect them to do anything that they wouldn’t feel was safe,” he said. The association fully supports “all of FDA’s efforts to keep the food safe,” he stressed. “We just want to make sure that when they are doing what they have to do it is not causing undue damage to these growers and shippers.” In a hot market, if a truckload of produce is on hold too long awaiting test results — even if the results are negative and the load is cleared — it might be more than $40,000 that has to be thrown away for every shipment that has been detained.