Security-related delays hamper food shipments

HOW MUCH security is enough for food shipments, and what is too much? A growing number of edibles haulers are questioning whether recent security regulations are placing food products at greater risk.

Security remains a serious concern for all of the participants in the food logistics chain that serves consumers across North America. Every effort is made to ensure that food products are transported under the safest, most secure conditions.

Following the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington DC, government and industry acknowledged that food shipments could be a prime target for sabotage and deliberate contamination. Even as carriers took steps to improve the security of their operations, stricter food safety and security regulations were enacted.

The regulatory burden now weighs heavily on the industry, especially companies involved in international food shipments. Security-related delays and inspections at the border and ports of entry increase the risk of spoilage and contamination.

One of the most recent developments is a requirement for prior notification of international food shipments that took effect August 13. Developed under the Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act of 2002, the rules affect every product intended for the US food supply.

Products include dairy foods, eggs, flour, sugar, yeast, vegetable oils, animal food and feed ingredients, and beverages (including alcoholic drinks and drinking water). Even chemicals used in food products are covered.

Prior notice must be submitted to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) at least two hours before an over-the-road shipment reaches the border crossings. Four hours advance notice is required for rail shipments, and prior notice for water borne shipments must be received eight hours before arrival.

Prior notice can be submitted electronically through FDA's Prior Notice System Interface (access.fda.gov) or through the US Customs and Border Protection's Automated Broker Interface of the Automated Commercial System. Only authorized individuals can use the Customs system.

Food shipments that arrive at the border without prior notice can be barred from entering the United States, but that's not all. Shipments reaching the border before the scheduled arrival time can be delayed. Finally, complying with the prior notice requirement doesn't exempt a shipment from inspection by US officials.

In addition to prior notice, the Bioterrorism Act of 2002 mandated increased inspection of both international and domestic food shipments. FDA inspectors can detain and inspect any food shipment that they consider to be suspect, even if that results in the load being rejected by the consignee.

While acknowledging the need to ensure a safe food supply, trucking industry officials say that the objective could be achieved more efficiently. For example, more FDA officials are needed at the border crossing points to provide an expanded presence throughout the week, including evenings and weekends.

The FDA prior notice requirement should be incorporated with the Customs Trade Partnership Against Terrorism (C-TPAT) and Free and Secure Trade (FAST) programs. One trucking association noted that a move by FDA to allow food to move through the FAST stream in the same manner as other products would demonstrate a commitment to harmonization that industry has long encouraged.

With regard to inspections of bulk food shipments, tank fleet officials point out that all openings typically are sealed on a trailer. They have requested that FDA develop a procedure for the inspector to reseal the load with an FDA seal after an inspection that turns up no problem. An official FDA document also should be provided as verification.

All of this brings us back to the initial questions: How much security is enough for food shipments, and what is too much?

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