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Bleak picture painted for improving importing process

SAN DIEGO — Several industry experts said that because of budgetary constraints, there is no reason to expect anything but increased delays at ports of entry when trying to import fresh produce into the United States.

A tremendous increase in imports over the last decade has not led to a corresponding increase in inspectors, facilities or even efficiencies to handle the increase. In addition, new federal regulations, including the yet-to-be-released import rules associated with the Food Safety Modernization Act, have led to what seems sure to be an unfunded mandate.

At the end of the day, that probably means increasing delays at the border, increased cost and greater shrink.

Speaking during a workshop session on the Expo floor during the United Fresh Produce Association convention were panelists Bruce McEvoy of Seald Sweet International and John McClung of Texas International Produce Association. Both of these longtime industry leaders held the top executive position at their respective organizations, and both are now serving those organizations in more of a consultative fashion specifically on border issues.  

McEvoy relayed statistics showing that fruit imports have doubled in the past decade and are continuing to grow at a very fast clip. Currently fruit imports account for almost 50 percent of U.S. fruit consumption and they will surpass the halfway mark in the next couple of years. That increase has not been met by an increase in the number of inspectors, but it has been met by an increase in delays at the border.

As an example, he said that it already takes a ship with a load of citrus from South Africa 24 days to make the voyage to Miami.

"Add a three- or four-day delay, and you have eliminated our opportunity to market the crop," he said.

Additionally, McEvoy said that ships are typically timed to coincide with promotional opportunities at retail, but retailers are reluctant to schedule those promotions if they are not sure the supplies will be released by the Food & Drug Administration or U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement.

"I see no strategic relief on the horizon," he said.

On the contrary, the Seald Sweet executive believes that when import rules are released for FSMA, they will most likely call for increased inspections, yet there are no funds to pay for it.

McClung discussed the same theme dealing with truck crossings through Texas and other ports of entry on the U.S. southern border. He revealed that about 150,000 trucks loaded with produce will cross the border at the Rio Grande Valley port of entry this year, yet there are only eight inspectors charged with examining those trucks. A simple math calculation reveals that the task is impossible.

He said that the produce industry should prepare itself for increased costs as the main provisions of FSMA shift the burden of food safety from the government to industry.

Unfortunately, he said facility registration fees as well as inspection charges might well be the government's answer.

McClung said, "go see Congress if you want to blame someone."

He added that he does not expect Congress to come up with a solution soon. "Will Congress look at this issue rationally? I have my doubts."

Also commenting on the issue from the audience was Lance Jungmeyer, president of the Nogales, AZ-based Fresh Produce Association of the Americas, who said that a brand new border crossing facility is about to open in Nogales and if properly staffed, it could allow trucks, cars and people to cross the border very efficiently.

But Jungmeyer said it appears that ICE will fall at least 500 people short of staffing the facility properly. He also said that the inspectors do not schedule their work shifts to coincide with the heaviest traffic period. Many trucks are loaded in the production areas and arrive at the border late in the afternoon, but inspectors tend to shut down by about 3:30 p.m. and head back to their offices.

Both he and McClung made the point that while the Department of Homeland Security has become very well funded in the last decade, the funds have been used to chase "thugs and drugs" rather than the bugs that can arrive via a produce truck.

While the border patrol personnel have quadrupled in that time period, Jungmeyer said the number of inspectors has not significantly increased.

McClung said "they are hiring the wrong color shirts — blue (border patrol) rather than green (inspectors)."

Jungmeyer added that what worries the industry is an increase in fees. He said one proposal that he has heard about could impose a charge as much as $100 per truck.

"One of my members crosses 100 trucks a day. That $10,000 a day, or $60,000 a week," said Jungmeyer.