Tight pest controls open door for S. Florida to import Latin American perishables.
By Eric Kulisch
A trial program that for the first time in decades would allow shippers in southern Florida to import limited types of South American produce that meets stringent phytosanitary standards is expected to receive the final go ahead from federal authorities by the end of August, according to industry and government participants.
Direct shipment of blueberries and grapes from Peru and Uruguay would significantly reduce transportation costs and give consumers access to fresher fruit, program advocates say.
“We feel we can just as safely and effectively bring in such products and allow for better efficiencies and better time to market,” Eric Olafson, manager of intergovernmental affairs and cargo development at the Port of Miami, said in a phone interview.
Under U.S. Department of Agriculture rules written more than 40 years ago when most cargo moved in breakbulk vessels, certain perishable products from South America and other warm climes must be subjected to sustained refrigeration and enter through ports north of the 39th parallel — Baltimore and above — where the cold winter will kill any fruit flies that escape.
Proper cold treatment requires designated produce to be kept at a temperature of 36° Fahrenheit for 15 days. Cargo that arrives at northeastern ports before cold treatment is completed at origin, or in transit, must be moved to an approved near-dock warehouse where the procedure is restarted.
Fumigation does not work for fruit flies.
The rationale for the rule is that if the dangerous pest arrives in southern states it can thrive, reproduce and threaten local crops, including those of Florida’s citrus industry.
Peruvian blueberries and grapes are primarily shipped to the ports of Philadelphia and Wilmington, Del., and trucked back to Florida for distribution to local grocery stores, increasing the transit time by almost a week. The extra truck haul adds about $2,500 to $3,400 per container to the final delivery cost, as well as increases carbon emissions, Olafson said.
Over the years, USDA has exempted the ports of Seattle; Wilmington, N.C.; Gulfport, Miss.; Corpus Christi, Texas; and Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta, from the geographical restrictions on where cold treatment facilities can be located.
But the exemptions have not panned out as expected for many of the ports. Wilmington, Gulfport and Corpus Christi don’t receive any shipments requiring cold treatment for fruit flies and volumes of such produce are very small at the Atlanta airport, Calvin Shuler, director of exclusion and import for the USDA’s Plant Protection and Quarantine Service, told American Shipper.
In May, USDA proposed designating MidAmerica St. Louis Airport in Mascoutah, Ill., as an approved location for cold treatment of fruits or vegetables.
Agriculture officials now believe cold treatment techniques have evolved to the point where, along with the use of redundant protocols, they can carefully loosen the import restrictions in Florida for certain perishable commodities, Shuler said.
The pilot program is scheduled to begin Oct. 1 and last six months at the Port of Miami and Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale, after which it will be evaluated as a permanent policy and for possible expansion to other types of fruit and points of origin. Blueberries and grapes from Peru and Uruguay were chosen for the test because they are at low risk for fruit fly infestation, Shuler said.
A new import permit spelling out the requirements to safely enter the fruit into the U.S. market is being finalized and will be announced soon, enabling shipments to begin, he said. It will be available on the USDA’s e-permits window, at www.aphis.usda.gov/permits.
The radical change in phytosanitary policy was pushed by the Florida Perishables Trade Coalition, which was formed in early 2012 by the two ports, importers, carriers, warehouse developers, fumigators, customs brokers and forwarders that specialize in perishable products, and Peruvian growers who are interested in opening up trade opportunities between the United States and Central and South America. Other Florida ports are participating as interested observers.
There have been off-and-on attempts during the past 15 years to increase imports of at-risk fruit and vegetable shipments through South Florida, but a more unified industry voice and a willingness to clearly define comprehensive safety protocols industry is willing to follow have succeeded this time in getting regulators to take a second look at their policies and procedures, coalition leader Lee Sandler, a well-known Miami trade attorney and co-founder of global law firm Sandler, Travis & Rosenberg, said.
Peru was Port Miami’s 11th largest trading partner in 2012. In the past year, imports increased 29 percent to $642 million and exports rose 23 percent to $2 billion, spurred in large part by the 2007 U.S.-Peru free trade agreement.
“We’re the closest U.S. seaport to Peru, so we’re taking advantage of that,” Olafson said.
South Florida, and the Port of Miami in particular, is well suited to handle perishable cargo that requires special care, Olafson said. Miami’s three terminals have more than 1,000 electrified plugs for refrigerated containers, which are augmented by additional generators; there are more agriculture inspectors in the area than anywhere in the nation and they are cross-trained to work at Miami International Airport as well, which enables both facilities to accommodate higher volumes of agricultural products; refrigerated warehouse capacity in the region is increasing; Miami has more ocean services to Latin America and the Caribbean than any other port; and U.S. Customs recently established a Center of Excellence and Expertise (a virtual office consolidating agency expertise in a particular industry to give trusted shippers nationwide a one-stop shop for post-entry processing of trade documents) for agriculture and prepared products in Miami.
In June, USDA extended its hours of operation at Port Miami by 3.5 hours per weekday, citing Miami’s perishable volumes and the need to reduce delays for such time-sensitive cargo. Inspectors now are on a 12-hour shift.
The Florida East Coast Railway in October is preparing to open the first phase of a new intermodal yard at the Port of Miami and a rehabilitated stretch of track connecting to its main line that runs along the coast to Jacksonville. The FEC, which also plans to build an intermodal container transfer city in Port Everglades, touts its double-stack intermodal rail service as a more efficient alternative for serving metro areas in the Ohio Valley and the East Coast because vessels can make a first call in South Florida and cargo can get to market faster than waiting for the vessel to stop and unload in other ports along the coast. Railroad officials say they can reach 70 percent of the U.S. population within one to four days.
Demand for fruit is high in Florida, which has 19 million residents and 89 million visitors per year, Olafson added.
Close collaboration by industry, USDA, the Florida Department of Agriculture and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, at the local level and at headquarters, made the pilot possible, according to all involved.
Together they crafted an extensive list of protocols for bringing in Peruvian blueberries and grapes, and to a lesser extent fruit from Uruguay, said Sandler in an interview prior to final USDA confirmation of the standards.
Before the product leaves the country it must be pre-cooled at a dockside refrigeration plant or aboard the vessel so its core temperature is lowered to an acceptable standard. Refrigeration will be conducted during transit. Another controlling environment, Sandler said, is that the fruit will be shipped in containers, which must be new or completely cleaned to make sure they are residue-free.
The containers also must be outfitted with approved temperature sensors that are certified as properly placed in each shipment by agriculture authorities in the country of export. The probes are linked to an on-board satellite-based communication device that can transmit the box’s location and temperature status.
The cold treatment has to be completed before the vessel arrives at the Florida port and a report delivered to the Plant Protection and Quarantine Service while the vessel is outside the harbor. The agency will review the data and give permission to unload the cargo if the protocols have been maintained, although CBP still inspects it, Sandler said.
Customs inspectors’ duties include checking container seals and inspecting tailgates before the container is released.
The transit time between Peru and Miami is about 11 days, so carriers have the option of starting the cooling process prior to vessel loading or transshipping the containers at a port on the Panama Canal where they can be temporarily plugged in on shore and loaded back on another ship heading to the East Coast, Olafson said.
The shippers have also volunteered to use fly-proof netting over the fruit shipments as an extra precaution against a breakdown in the protocols.
The trade community’s hope is that U.S. and Florida regulators will eventually allow cold treatment in South Florida so that sealed containers that need more time can complete the process on the dock or at an approved facility, and avoid an intermediate stopover in Panama, Sandler said.
CBP has geared up for the pilot program by sending inspectors from Florida to northern ports for training on fruit fly controls, he said.
Proponents of the new trade route don’t know what kind of blueberry and grape volumes to expect, but Olafson said coalition members are heading to the fruit-growing regions of Peru, as well as the nation’s main port in Callao, to educate them about the new trade opportunity and what steps to take to comply with the program.