(April 29) SAN PEDRO, Calif. -- Ideas ranging from standardized identification cards for port workers to the Customs Service's controversial 24-hour prior-notice policy were explored during a Congressional field hearing on port security April 24.

Rob Marshall-Johns, director of operations and quality control for the Oppenheimer Group, Vancouver, British Columbia, was invited to speak on behalf of the produce industry, and expressed the industry's concern about the Customs Service's requiring shippers to provide 24-hour advance notice about the content of a load and other information before a vessel leaves port.

"Unlike a manufactured product where the specifications are generally consistent, many factors come into play when dealing with fresh fruits and vegetables," he said in remarks reviewed by the committee. "Sometimes the actual product specifications are not known until immediately before the vessel is loaded."

He said the North American produce industry could more easily implement a 24-hour notification after the vessel departs the country of origin.

That idea, however, was not enthusiastically received by some other witnesses who were on hand to testify.

John Ochs, security manager for the steamship line Maersk SeaLand Ltd., said post-departure inspections would be useless from Maersk's perspective.

"Would a ship have to turn around if a problem were found with one container?" he asked.

Domenick Miretti, senior liaison, ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach for the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, said he supported the 24-hour advance notice for the sake of the safety of a ship's crew.

The hearing was chaired by Rep. Doug Ose, a California Republican, who was joined by three guest members of the House government reform subcommittee on energy policy, natural resources and regulatory affairs.

Marshall-Johns was one of six expert witnesses called to provide input about what federal regulations are needed to implement the Maritime Security Transportation Act.

Marshall-Johns also called for improved personal security measures, strict background checks for anyone working with produce, a unique identification system -- such as a bar code system -- for all cargo and random cargo screening when a ship arrives in the U.S.

But he cautioned that a random screening "should not be so onerous that it causes significant delays, which may affect product integrity and incur costs that have a negative effect on margins and returns to growers."

He also called for consistent Customs Service policies and said the cost for port security should not have to be borne by a single person or a single company. The cost to screen a cargo container alone can range from $100 to $800, he said.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., said he planned to introduce legislation calling for a container fee that would be paid by the originating country so that U.S. taxpayers would not be saddled with the entire cost of providing port security.

Subcommittee chairman Ose said he will propose legislation that will direct a portion of the $15.6 billion in duties collected by the Customs Service to be invested in port security.

Larry Keller, executive director of the Port of Los Angeles, estimated the cost of providing adequate security for that port at $100 million. He said a similar amount would be required for the adjacent Port of Long Beach. Together, the two facilities handle 42% of the nation's containerized goods.

Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., and ranking member of the House permanent select committee on intelligence, said providing adequate port security is a must.

The 10-day worker lockout at the port last fall cost the U.S. economy $2 billion a day, she said. A major terrorist attack at the port would be "a lockout times 10," and could lead to $58 billion in losses to the U.S. economy, she said.

Ochs of the Maersk steamship line said the U.S. needs to "push back its borders" and require ports in Canada and Mexico to adhere to the same requirements as U.S. ports, since many products enter the U.S. through those countries.

Stephanie Williams, vice president of the California Trucking Association, called for federal oversight of security regulations since state regulations may sometimes conflict with federal requirements.

Marshall-Johns of Oppenheimer said he planned to submit more produce-specific information in the coming weeks, but he generally was satisfied with the reception his comments received from the subcommittee.

"I was reasonably optimistic after this hearing," he said.