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Pundit’s Pulse Of The Industry —
Fresh Produce Association
Of The Americas’ Lee Frankel

The Fresh Produce Association of the Americas is pretty riled up over the attitude of the California Department of Food and Agriculture toward many Mexican produce items:

California Ag Agency Causing Trade Disruptions

NOGALES, Ariz., February 23, 2007 — Members of the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas (FPAA) say the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) continues to cause major trade disruptions due to inspection errors and inconsistencies at border stations located along the California/Arizona border. In addition to ongoing misidentifications of alleged live scale on Mexican mango shipments entering California from Arizona, the CDFA most recently has been rejecting Mexican avocados and Mexican bell peppers at inspection points along the border without proper pest identification or consistent inspection policies.

Trouble with CDFA inspectors started to escalate over the past few Mexican mango seasons. CDFA inspectors had been identifying scale that was supposedly alive, despite the fact most of the shipments were arriving from areas of Mexico that must hot-water treat the mangos to prevent the spread of fruit flies. The mango loads were rejected and prohibited entry, causing damage to wholesalers and retailers not able to fulfill customer demands in spite of the fact that in most incidents the scale was later determined to be dead or non-viable due to the hot-water treatment.

In recent incidents, CDFA rejected several shipments of Mexican avocados supposedly due to the presence of non-native scale, only to reverse the findings after a second inspection showed the scale on 10 of 11 shipments to be without a doubt native to California. Additionally, members of the trade are now reporting that CDFA inspectors are rejecting green and colored bell pepper shipments. However, some drivers are reporting that they had shipments carrying bell peppers prohibited from entering California without receiving the proper inspection documentation from CDFA to verify the presence of live insects.

Lee Frankel, FPAA president, says, “It is unacceptable and irresponsible for CDFA to have a 90 percent error rate in identifying pests on Mexican avocados. Additionally, to hear reports that some loads of bell peppers are being denied entry into California without any written inspection report further highlights CDFA’s inconsistent inspection and review practices.”

Before Mexican avocados were permitted to enter all U.S. states, there were multiple Pest Risk Assessments conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal Plant Health Inspection Service (USDA-APHIS). CDFA had ample opportunity to participate in these risk assessments leading up to the February 1, 2007 deadline to allow Mexican avocados into California. The FPAA and its members believe that by waiting until now to point out possible pest risks, the CDFA is damaging trade with one of its most significant trading partners, Mexico.

Adds Frankel, “If Mexican agriculture officials exhibited the same behavior that we are seeing from CDFA, California would consider it egregious and unwarranted, especially given the fact that Mexico is the 1st or 2nd largest export market for many California products. The FPAA specifically requested that CDFA identify pests of concern to California before that state’s market opened to Mexican avocados, but they didn’t show an interest in participating in the process until now.”

Following the rejection of several loads of Mexican avocados due to misidentified scale, CDFA officials are in Michoacan, Mexico meeting with officials from USDA-APHIS and the Mexican Department of Agriculture concerning avocados. The meetings will hopefully result in better coordination between CDFA, APHIS and Mexican officials. FPAA’s Frankel, however, is not convinced this will solve many of the ongoing problems.

Says Frankel, “It’s unfortunate that we are seeing the ongoing problems associated with mangos now spreading to other commodities. These serious issues need to be addressed by CDFA and the federal agriculture authorities or trade relations between California and Mexico will continue to deteriorate.”

What is really going on? Is this protectionism or is this bureaucratic ineptitude? We asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to learn more:

Lee Frankel
President of the Fresh Produce
Association of the Americas

Nogales, Arizona

Q: As an advocate for Mexican produce importers and distributors, you claim the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) is causing major unnecessary trade disruptions? What is going on?

A: The positive spin is bureaucratic communication breakdown and lack of coordination between CDFA and USDA-APHIS, or the more sinister explanation is that people are purposely instigating unwarranted delays and egregiously rejecting Mexican produce shipments to stave off competition. Either way, it’s a significant problem.

Q: How long has this been a problem, and why is it coming to a head now?

A: This issue has been going on for several years, but in this past month we’ve had two high profile examples of the breakdown of the system that unfairly penalizes commercial shippers trying to enter California or transship the product to northwest markets.

The issue from the distributor point of view is simply trying to get good product into California. Everyone realizes the need to protect the system from harmful species. We understand any country or region has the right to implement product sector protection. Our concern is that the CDFA measures are more restrictive than those adopted by USDA-APHIS. Not only do they exceed USDA federal requirements, but they also go beyond a reasonable execution of the inspection and exclusion efforts based on the current science available. I speculate that the root cause is CDFA does not have good cooperative relations with USDA-APHIS. Basically, California ends up re-inspecting everything. In the case of bell peppers for sure, and likely with avocados, disrupting trade for several weeks at a time.

Q: What actually happens? There are border checkpoints between Arizona and California and trucks have to pull in and wait to be inspected by CDFA? Does this involve every truck or only those flagged? Are the stations manned day and night?

A: As long as the California legislature and CDFA are funding the border stations adequately, every truck needs to report at these agricultural inspection stations and based on the truck manifest the CDFA makes a decision to what type and level of inspection it is going to conduct.

Q: Does CDFA have more restrictive standards than APHIS? Is it allowed to legally, or is CDFA only permitted to re-inspect for conformance to APHIS standards?

A: States are allowed to have additional standards where scientifically justified. APHIS did submit a proposed rule that would make any jurisdiction or state within the U.S. have clear scientific basis for its actions. At the present time it’s a patchwork system with different states using different levels of science.

Q: Is it California policy to re-inspect everything? And what is everything? Every van, every pallet, every box, every pepper?

A: Based upon what the previous findings have been, the operations will vary based on the product, where product is coming from, and ultimately whether they look at a few pallets on the back of the truck or require full off load of the truck to have access to all the boxes. Department of Homeland Security will physically do the inspection at the US border. If they find any insects they pass that creature of concern to a USDA Aphis pest identifier.

Q: Precisely why does re-inspection disrupt trade? Is it that the inspection takes so long because CDFA is understaffed? Is it that vans are held two weeks trying to identify insects? If the latter, why do so many vans have insects?

A: The biggest problem is the time it takes for California to identify what the test is, and whether California has the right to exclude that product. That is the critical issue disrupting trade. The produce industry is built on having fresh products, so you’re likely to find a bug or two over the course of millions of pounds a day.

Q: If there are a million pounds a day going through quickly and then two vans each day have a bug and get held, that is a very different problem from every van being held up. Could you help define the scope of the problem better?

A: Not every van is being held up, but ultimately, California has no right to hold up good product and stop those shipments. Every shipment gets reviewed, and it’s the random problems that undermine confidence in the market for people that need product delivered. They’ll hold up a significant percentage of trucks of a particular crop at particular time frames.

It’s not every single product, but it’s enough if you’re a pepper shipper, it’s your business and your contract on the line. If it’s your $10 million being lost, then it’s a big deal to you. In the grand scheme of things, it’s a fraction of a percentage of total sales into California. Just because it’s not a bigger disruption doesn’t mean it’s not improper and illegal.

Q: Are you saying that when the occasional pest in a particular shipment is discovered, there is no valid reason for that shipment to be stopped?

A: The bottom line is that at the end of the day, CDFA learns the bug was not harmful and there was no need to reject those shipments. The product is being impounded when there is no scientific basis to do so. They’ll see a bug every once and a while, and when they do they look more closely at all those products of that commodity coming in. In general, the rule is that once they’ve identified a bug, they reject the shipment.

In general, pest prevalence in bell peppers is extremely low. In the most recent example, pest prevalence in a shipment of bell peppers was low enough that it took roughly two weeks to find a specimen to identify down to the species. If CDFA had a working relationship with APHIS, it could theoretically have called someone to ask what the pests were. Federal authorities are testing 10 to 20 times more product, so in theory they should already have new pests identified. When I say new, I’m not referring to a new species. An old pest could always become prevalent one year or another based on weather changes or different pest management practices being implemented. The real impact for Mexican suppliers has come from CDFA taking so long to properly identify pests.

Regions free of particular insects and bugs have the right to protect those regions. But is the system set up to do that without causing unnecessary disruption to trade and commerce? Clearly the answer is no.

Q: So to clarify, it’s not that there are mass hold ups, but that random shipment delays and rejections create undue concern and trigger a lack of confidence with customers ?

A: California customers cancelled three long term contracts with bell pepper companies because of uncertainties created by the CDFA.

Q: Are any actions being taken to address the problem?

A: The next step is that the USDA Secretary Mike Johanns and the Mexican Secretary of Agriculture Alberto Cardenas will meet next week on a range of topics that will include this issue of how California is executing and enforcing sanitary restrictions beyond those agreed to between the two governments.

Q: What other topics will be examined?

A: Internal military points are a critical area of concern. Basically, the U.S. government forces Mexico to take certification steps in the battle against drugs and smuggling. The Mexican response is internal check points, but unfortunately these check points, at the worst times of operation, double the trip from the farm to the border.

Basically, the U.S. sends lots of money for training and infrastructure but it winds up in places not useful for trade at the end of the day. Overall, the framework for increasing security in the region is problematic. These check points are a factor in reducing integration of the North American market and at the end of the day create more risk in the supply chain for smugglers because the system disrupts any transportation schedule. The shipper doesn’t know if the product has been tampered with or the truck is in line so long because of the checkpoints.

Because these check points are there and so inefficient at the moment, it makes it difficult to know why the truck was delayed, whether it is a legitimate reason waiting for inspection or potential tampering with the product. Check points within the interior of Mexico were ultimately set up at the request of the United States. At the end of the day nobody is taking responsibility for the long-term operation and it has resulted in dilapidated inspection points that end up creating as many problems as they are solving.

Q: What’s the solution?

A: The idea is to take the billions of dollars the U.S. spends and put it into modernizing those check points, translating similar technology currently in place at ports and airports, and already used in both Mexican and U.S. customs operations. The solution is putting in gamma ray machines at entry points to screen product much faster and in a less invasive way. It’s an easier and safer approach that minimizes potential impact.

It doesn’t take a lot for trade to be disrupted. One only has to throw the wrench of unpredictability in and it is easy to stop the wheels of commerce from turning.

A few things have to happen:

  1. If CDFA has a different standard than USDA-APHIS it needs to be published on the Internet so everyone can see it, conform to it or dispute it.

  2. There needs to be a public procedure for disputing CDFA standards that differ from USDA-APHIS standards.

  3. CDFA Officers need to be trained to identify all defined risks or need to have instantaneous access to experts who are so trained.

  4. There needs to be sufficient staffing at CDFA inspection stations to keep product moving on an expeditious basis.

  5. Appeal inspections need to be quickly available.

At the same time, as with food safety, the Mexican growers have to move toward a zero tolerance policy for deviation from standards. It is not acceptable that even one shipment be found with non-native scale.

Maybe the solution is to provide USDA-APHIS inspectors with the special California standards and deputize them to inspect, at the border, for CDFA compliance. If so the vans would be put under a special seal allowing shipment in or through California.

This way the inspectors would have no bias, but the standards they inspect to could still be high.

Mexico is not just a supplier to the U.S. It is a substantial buyer, and we are playing with fire if we allow our treaty obligations to Mexico to be undermined.

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