(Sept. 7) In the week before Sept. 11, 2001, Mexican president Vicente Fox met with President George Bush in Washington, D.C., to discuss changes in U.S. immigration policy that would allow legalization of undocumented workers and expand legal border crossings.

Then the Pentagon and the World Trade Center were attacked with commercial airliners in a terror plot carried out by foreign nationals living in the U.S. Immigration as a policy topic was almost immediately recast as a security threat rather than an economic need.

The U.S. economy itself suffered a downturn after 9/11, and public sentiment turned against illegal immigration as a pocketbook issue. With the shock and horror of losing thousands of American citizens on our home turf, the country turned defensive against illegal aliens.

For agriculture, one of the results was inaction on one of their most important priorities.

Mike Stuart, president of the Maitland-based Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, said the immigration issue has advanced no further. Instead, there’s a tension between growers’ need for immigrant labor and public sentiment to gain control of the border.

“Regardless of your view, there is a tremendous amount of frustration about the inability of Congress to resolve the issue,” Stuart said, adding that he sees no positive solution for the industry before the November election.

CHANGES AND CHALLENGES

The push toward traceback systems was speeded along by legislation created in the months after the terrorist attacks on Washington, D.C., and New York City, industry leaders said in early September.

Government agencies changed after the attacks, with the expansion of the authority of the Food and Drug Administration and the transfer of agricultural inspection duties at the border from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to the newly created Department of Homeland Security.

Since then, new FDA rules have increased the cost of compliance for exporters to the U.S. and for U.S. food marketers.

But industry lobbyists who weren’t particularly happy with the performance of border inspections when the duty fell to the USDA say they are now even less pleased with the record of the Department of Homeland Security.

THE ACT

The biggest piece of industry-related legislation after Sept. 11 was the Bioterrorism Act of 2002. The legislation created regulations related to traceback, registration of facilities, prior notice of imports and administrative detention.

“Food security” was given a whole new meaning after the attacks, said Kathy Means, vice president of government relations for the Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association.

Before Sept. 11, food security referred to the question of whether a family had enough money to purchase enough food. After the attack, food security came to mean the effort to tamper-proof the U.S. food supply.

Now, some government sources want to substitute “food defense” in place of “food security.”

Whatever the name, the U.S. food supply has never been safer, said Jim Gorny, vice president of quality assurance and technology for the United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association, Washington, D.C.

“Kudos to government and industry for working so well together,” Gorny said, adding that the security measures will help prevent intentional tampering with the food supply.

The industry has adapted to regulation changes, and Means said that there have been many changes in protocol throughout the supply chain. Now, new controls on access to product and background checks on employees are part of doing business for many companies, she said.

The attacks allowed the FDA to gain from Congress the authority for the traceback and traceforward systems they had always wanted, said Gabriele Ludwig, Washington, D.C.-based consultant and lobbyist on food issues.

“Traceback makes it easier for the government and more complicated for the industry,” she said.

PEST INSECURITY

The transfer of authority for agricultural border inspections from the USDA to the Department of Homeland Security was an overreaction to Sept. 11, said Joel Nelsen, president of Exeter-based California Citrus Mutual.

“Despite their best intentions, it hasn’t gone smoothly,” Nelsen said, referring to a decline in efficiencies and a shortage of trained staff for agricultural inspections.

“We are comfortable the effort is there, but I hope it improves before we have a real crisis or disaster,” he said.