One thing the produce industry in the Rio Grande Valley would like to see is a streamlined process for government inspections and testing.
“We are seeing that the government — Customs and Border Protection, Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture — are facing increasing demands on their services,” said John McClung, president of the Mission-based Texas Produce Association.
“Perishable product is being bottlenecked, and we see no reason to think it’s going to do anything but become more problematic when funding is far from assured,” McClung said.
“It’s frustrating to see so much money put into our border patrol and border security absent adequate funding for our ports of entry.”
This is causing major problems with some imports, especially papayas, which are under an FDA import alert. All loads of papayas have to be tested for salmonella, causing significant delays.
“It’s simply taking the FDA too long to go through the process they insist on going through to clear loads,” McClung said.
Trucks stop for inspection at the border, and samples are taken to private lab, which takes 4-5 days to get back.
“Even if it’s negative, and the vast majority are, it has to be submitted to the FDA for a clearance process that takes what they say will be 5-6 working days but it ends up being more like 10,” McClung said.
“You’ve got 2-3 weeks going through this process where the shipper is paying for cold storage and papaya just doesn’t last that long.”
The product has to be dumped, and the grower-shipper has to pay for that, as well.
“They’re facing a $20,000 loss at the end of this,” McClung said.
Shippers do have some recourse, he said. They can get off the inspection detention list if they have five clean samples in a row in an FDA-determined period of time.
“But the FDA doesn’t define what a period of time is,” he said.
“That can take two weeks to a month.”
This process is a fallout of the Food Safety Modernization Act, McClung said, which shippers don’t have a problem with, in theory.
“But the government doesn’t have the resources to deal with it promptly,” he said.
“Prevention is a much more difficult and expensive proposition and under the new law, every importer takes responsibility for the safety of everything he or she imports. It’s difficult when agencies do not have the infrastructure to do it quickly and efficiently.”