Specter of food import delays wanes after security plan adjusted
U.S. officials have done a good job in the last few weeks alleviating strong fears among food producers, carriers and distributors that food imports will grind to a halt Dec. 12 when federal rules designed to prevent bio-terrorism go into effect, according to people involved in import/export issues.
The Food and Drug Administration, under instructions from Congress, has issued interim rules requiring all foreign and domestic facilities that manufacture, process, pack or hold for U.S. consumption to register with the agency and that food importers must give prior notice of shipments several hours before arrival.
The Bureau of Customs and Border Protection played a key role in convincing FDA to adjust some of its original proposals so as not to severely burden businesses, trade industry representatives and Customs officials said. The FDA, for example, originally proposed that prior notice be given no later than noon on the day before arrival. The interim rule now allows two hours notice for imports arriving via land by truck; four hours before arrival by air or by rail; and eight hours notice if by ocean vessel.
FDA officials addressed the Customs' Trade Symposium in Washington and said that most cargo will still be able to go through on Dec. 12, even in cases where compliance is lacking with regard to facility registration or transmitting prior notice. Shipments will only be held if they pose a health hazard, people who heard the presentation said. The FDA will reopen the comment period again in March after the current comment period ends in late December in order to prepare an improved final rule, the sources said.
'We will not stop whole shipments because they haven't totally complied with the prior notice or registration,' Customs Commissioner Robert Bonner told the gathering of trade industry representatives.
Bonner said he is 'committed to harmonizing' the FDA rules with Customs' own requirements for receiving advance manifest data and knowing the contents of shipments before they arrive at a U.S. port.
'There ought not to be two separate sets of timelines with regard to advance electronic information,' he said. He also called for a single portal through which importers could submit information. Under the current set up the FDA and CBP will operate parallel systems.
People 'are more comfortable that a company can comply with the rules and still provide meaningful security' than they were before, said trade lawyer Lee Sandler, a principle in Miami-based Sandler, Travis and Rosenberg, in an interview.
Sandler said his firm is scheduled to meet next week with a group of foreign trade councils who are concerned that producers and shippers in their countries have not paid enough attention to the FDA requirements and registered in time. The meeting is designed to help the trade councils find ways to spread the word in their respective countries about the need to comply with the FDA rule.
Meanwhile, the FDA is concerned that it is going to be deluged with a flood of registrations Dec. 11, the day before the rule goes into effect, he said.
Some industry representatives expressed confusion with some aspects of the bio-terrorism rule during the forum. Among the concerns was whether farms that fumigate food are covered under the exemption for farms in general and whether Customs' automated manifest systems can recognize these types of exceptions.