FOOD SHIPMENT SECURITY: When Lemons Go Bad
Avessel holding five full shipping containers of fresh lemons was held off the coast of New York in early August. Officials had received what turned out to be a false security tip from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that the cargo — some 200,000 pounds of lemons — might be biologically contaminated.
The U.S. Coast Guard held the vessel out of port for a week, later boarding the container ship to inspect the lemons, although no contamination was found.
After the week-long inspections, the lemons spoiled. “The lemons [were] destroyed because they are no good after sitting at sea for a week,” a Coast Guard spokesperson said.
It is a dilemma for both shippers and the government — how can perishable cargo suspected of contamination be inspected and either held or released in a timely manner?
According to the U.S. General Accounting Office, the U.S. imports a huge portion of its food supply, including 83 percent of seafood products and more than 35 percent of fresh fruit.
And the inspection problem does not appear to have a quick fix. The Department of Homeland Security is short of inspectors who specialize in checking food items for agricultural diseases and contaminants.
When the USDA’s border inspectors were merged into the Customs and Border Protection arm of DHS, there were fewer than 400 vacant positions. Now, there are more than 500. DHS planned for the shortfall by attempting to cross-train customs and immigration inspectors.
Nearly three years after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the restaurant and food industries and the government are still working to craft a coherent security plan to protect national food supplies.
Industry professionals say improvements have been made — from streamlined communications channels to the addition of armed guards — but with an estimated 878,000 restaurants, 57,000 food processors and 34,000 supermarkets, the U.S. food chain is ill-suited for screening measures, such as bomb-sniffing dogs at airports.
The government’s challenge is to increase security, but keep the system simple enough so that, for example, fresh lemons do not age and go bad aboard a ship while border inspectors are inundated with paperwork.
Nearly 100 professionals from the restaurant and food industries, as well as representatives from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, DHS and other federal agencies responsible for keeping food safe hosted a meeting on security in June.
The meeting produced a “common sense” checklist for U.S. companies receiving food shipments. Among them, companies should:
Thoroughly inspect all incoming food containers and food storage areas;
Ask for tamper-resistant packaging from the supplier; and
Train employees to spot suspicious shipments.
Security efforts by the government and the food industry have largely involved attempts to improve coordination and communication, both within the industry and between the industry and government.
Some restaurants and food retailers have taken steps such as increasing lighting and locking doors and armed guards.
“If every company does its part, that adds up to a lot of protection,” Dr. Robert Brackett, director of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition told The Dallas Morning News. “A lot of companies have taken some common-sense actions that have greatly enhanced food security. But we do have some ways to go yet.”
The food industry also must comply with several key provisions of the 2002 Bioterrorism Act, including notifying the FDA of food imports before the food hits the U.S. border — two hours for land shipments, eight hours by boat.
To handle increased food inspections, the FDA’s budget for food security and safety jumped from $11 million in fiscal year 2000 to nearly $111 million for the current fiscal year. “Food safety” differs slightly from “food security” — food safety issues involve keeping the product free of naturally occuring germs and bacteria, whereas food security focuses on intentional contamination.
Most of the $100 million funding increase went towards the addition of 650 new field workers and inspectors, bringing the roster to about 1,000, Brackett says.
For the government’s part, cross-training continues, with inspectors looking at food shipments and then referring suspicious cargo to agriculture specialists.