Stricter import rules are creating extra paperwork at U.S. ports, but shipping activity is largely proceeding smoothly so far, customs brokers say.

Port managers and shippers have been preparing for the government’s Importer Security Filing (ISF) rules for more than a year, said Edward Fitzgerald, import manager with Barthco International Inc., Philadelphia.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection implemented the ISF rules in January 2009, part of stepped-up efforts to identify high-risk shipments and prevent terrorist weapons from entering the country.

The agency delayed enforcement of the new rules until Jan. 26 to allow importers time to comply with tighter guidelines.

Managing shipments of fresh fruits and vegetables presents unique challenges compared to other types of cargo, Fitzgerald said. Increased documentation required from the country of origin means a higher level of organization is necessary on the receiving end.

“There have been some hurdles because of the nature of the perishables business, pushing back the timeline as far as documentation,” Fitzgerald said. “Now you really need to stage your containers ahead of time.”

For example, bananas.

“It used to be they were picked in the morning, put on a truck and then shipped out that night,” Fitzgerald said. “Not anymore. Now you have to stage the entire supply chain.”

Overall, importers and shippers have been very proactive, he said.

Importers now must submit supplier and buyer names and addresses, country of origin and other information no later than 24 hours before the cargo is loaded on vessels destined for the U.S. Submitting inaccurate, incomplete or untimely filings may result in fines of $5,000 per violation.

Keeping up with the new rules is causing some headaches for importers and brokers, but the prospect of steep penalties is incentive to make sure everything is filed properly.

“We’re having to do everything a lot sooner than before, getting information from importers,” said Sandy Frazier, president of the International Freight Forwarders and Custom Brokers Association of New Orleans. “It’s been a challenge, at best.

“You do have to follow up,” Frazier said. “We’re a lot more involved in the importer end of it. The risks, the penalties, we certainly don’t want to fall on us.”

Brokers say import clearance time, or how long it takes to get cargo released by customs agents, has so far remained about the same as it was prior to the rules.

Fitzgerald said his department has added four or five employees to its 110-person staff in the past year to specifically handle ISF work. The new rules have brought some benefits when it comes to planning, he said.

“It allows us to see what’s coming in a lot sooner, forecast a week or two ahead of time,” he said. “We’re able to see what’s coming down the pipeline a lot sooner.”

New federal law requires more import documentation

Don Schrack

A shipment of Dole bananas is unloaded at the Tenth Avenue Marine Terminal at the Port of San Diego. Importers are dealing with stricter rules that aim to identify high-risk shipments and stop terrorist weapons from entering the U.S.