Homeland security and growers team up

The FDA is developing the FSMA implementation provisions and rules, and the producers will soon get to see the proposals from the FDA. Nobody has seen anything yet, but the FDA has been open (according to all accounts) to grower and packer input.

Trucks bring products, including nuts, into the U.S. through the Otay Mesa border crossing where CBP agriculture specialists inspect the cargo.

With the continuing development of issues related to the FSMA, nut growers, distributors and outlets will see change. The good news is that most industry sources agree that the FDA, the key agency in the changes, is working well with all parties.

Hazard prevention and control plans have to be put in place for everyone in the food sector.

“For the moment, we have a law with a lot of framework,” says Jon Eisen, senior vice president of government relations for the International Foodservice Distributors Association (IFDA), McLean, Va. “The devil will be in the details.” These will be worked out over the next 24 months, and the nation’s nut producers need to be watchful.

“There is a lot of rule-making required within the next 18 months to two years,” Eisen says. “The rule-making process is going to be extensive. It is then that we will find out what this law is really going to mean. But there are a lot of questions out there.”

“We have adopted a crisis management program, if a crisis should show up,” says Hilton Segler, executive director of the National Pecan Growers Council. He concedes that it’s more a matter of “when” a crisis hits than an “if.”

About 80 percent of the world’s pecan crop is grown domestically. However, the U.S. imports much of the 10 percent of the world’s crop that comes from Mexico.

Like most others in the nut industry, Segler’s group focuses on health issues rather than bombs or bullets. “Our industry is very proactive in food safety,” he says.

The council is working with its Washington, D.C.-based consultant to keep members abreast of what is happening. “We haven’t yet had the opportunity to look at all of the new regulations that might apply to our industry,” Segler says from his Albany, Ga., location. However, he feels nut producers will have fewer problems than producers of other crops, like vegetables.

This is partly because nut meats are protected by a shell, and there is less chance of random or intentional delivery of any toxic substance, including salmonella or E. coli, into the food supply.

“From the grower’s side to the cleaning plant to the distributors, we are safety-conscious,” he declares.

On the ground, nut producers see little difference so far. “It’s about the same things as we’ve already been addressing,” says Janice Dees, executive director with the Georgia Pecan Growers Association.

Agriculture specialists check star fruit coming into the Port of Long Beach for pests.

She says there are emerging rules, but so far they reflect the types of processes and procedures growers already have in place.

In the meantime, there are numerous other federal agencies – from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to the USDA to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents – involved in protecting the borders against threats to agriculture. Nut and produce producers fall under this umbrella.

In July, for example, customs officers at the Otay Mesa cargo facility near San Diego, Calif., discovered 1,420 pounds of marijuana in boxes of serrano chili peppers. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is the unified border agency within the Department of Homeland Security charged with the management, control and protection of national borders at and between the official ports of entry.

CBP enforces the laws of more than 45 agencies at the border to keep dangerous items and dangerous people out of the country. “It is not a job that CBP can do alone,” CBP Commissioner Alan D. Bersin said at a conference last fall. He said that protecting American people and preventing dangerous goods from entering the country requires mutual coordination and enhanced communication between public and private groups. “We must develop a whole-of-government approach based on targeting and risk management,” Bersin added.

This past July 3, the FDA issued a joint anti-smuggling strategy that covers nuts and other ag produce. It was developed with the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The focus of the anti-smuggling strategy is to identify and prevent smuggled foods from entering the U.S. and posing a threat to national security and consumer safety. The FDA will work with CBP to review historical data and better identify products, firms and countries of origin to establish food smuggling targeting criteria.

A CBP agriculture specialist checks a shipment arriving in the U.S. CBP is responsible for the security of all nut shipments, as well as other produce.

CBP agriculture specialists have extensive training and experience in agricultural and biological inspection of nut shipments. Their historic mission of preventing the introduction of harmful pests into the country provides CBP with the expertise to recognize and prevent the entry of organisms that could potentially devastate entire segments of our agriculture-related economy.

CBP is charged with keeping terrorists and terrorist weapons out of the country while enforcing hundreds of U.S. laws. The FSMA’s key change requires a Food Defense Provision, the term used to define intentional contamination of any nut or other agricultural goods. The key word, which goes beyond tracking insects or foreign matter, is “intentional.” Before 9/11, Eisen notes, this sort of requirement was not on anyone’s radar. Since the Bioterrorism Act, it is an integral part of the security mindset of those inspecting nut shipments.

“It is too early to say how extensive a food defense program we are talking about, but it is included in the legislation,” he adds.

Homeland Security is not a party to the rule-making … at least, not yet. The IFDA did do a risk assessment for the government that included the FDA, Homeland Security and other agencies.

While the FDA has done quite a bit of listening, observers like Eisen note that the agency has not given the public a great deal of insight into what thought processes are going on in their internal meetings.

Hot peppers recently unloaded from trucks crossing into the U.S. await inspection by CBP agriculture specialists.

“They have been good in reaching out and asking for opinions from industry,” he states. “But I have not, thus far, seen them reveal much of what they are thinking at this point.”

Eisen says the Food Defense Provision is aimed at intentional contamination as a threat. There is a requirement in the law that the FDA implement a tracking system for high-risk foods, but there also are limits on the record-keeping that can be required.

“They cannot go beyond one level up and one level down,” Eisen says. “They cannot require record maintenance for more than two years. So there are some real stops in the law that they cannot require a lot of additional record-keeping.”

Homeland Security

While the July marijuana interdiction presented no threat of a bioterrorism attack, it showed that the CBP is alert. A Mexican citizen entered the cargo port driving a 2000 International tractor, pulling a refrigerated trailer with cargo manifested as chili peppers. A CBP officer noticed the driver’s nervous demeanor and referred the conveyance for an intensive examination. Officers ran the tractor trailer through the Otay Mesa cargo facility’s X-ray imaging system. It showed anomalies with the cargo. Officers then unloaded the shipment; they opened the boxes and discovered 112 wrapped packages of marijuana comingled with the peppers.

In May, a ruling was issued that allows the FDA to administratively detain nuts – or any food products – that it has reason to believe are adulterated or misbranded. The product can be held for up to 30 days, if needed, according to the rule that went into effect on July 3. Under this rule, these products will not be sold or distributed while the agency determines whether an enforcement action, such as seizure or federal injunction against distribution of the product, is warranted.

The EPA Office of Homeland Security (OHS) coordinates homeland security activities and policy development across all EPA program areas.

The idea is to ensure consistent direction and effective communication of homeland security efforts both within and outside the agency.

On December 9, 2004, the FDA issued a final regulation that required establishment and maintenance of records by persons who manufacture, process, pack, transport, distribute, receive, hold or import food in the U.S.

The idea was to have a paper trail for identification of the immediate previous sources and immediate subsequent recipients of food.

The final rule implements the Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act of 2002 (the Bioterrorism Act), and is necessary to help address credible threats of serious adverse health consequences or death to humans or animals.

Protecting domestic producers

Not every homeland security problem involves bullets or bombs. Sometimes a disaster can come in the form of a critter. Agents working the Mariposa cargo facility in Nogales, Ariz., this past fall discovered three significant citrus pests, two of which have never before been found in the U.S., and the third had only been found once before. “Exciting interceptions of these types are exactly what keeps Nogales CBP agriculture specialists motivated each and every day to protect our nation from invasion by harmful foreign insects, as well as plant and animal diseases,” said Port Director Guadalupe Ramirez.

An adult weevil (Curculionidae) was discovered in a shipment of pineapples and Persian limes from Mexico. The specimen was forwarded to USDA’s National Identification Services for identification, and a final report confirmed the identification of this quarantine-significant pest. It was the first time this pest has been intercepted at a port of entry, according to available records in the Pest Identification Database. Pantomorus uniformis is generally known to occur in southern Mexico and northern Central America.

A few weeks later, CBP agriculture specialists discovered an adult hemipteran insect, Calocorisca tenera (Miridae), with tomatoes from Mexico. Normally, tomatoes from Mexico are considered to be low risk for the introduction of pests of concern. However, most of the insects in this family are agricultural pests that cause damage to crops by piercing plant tissues and feeding on the juices. This, too, marked the first time this pest has been intercepted at a port of entry from Mexico according to available records in the Pest Identification Database.

Within minutes of this interception, another Nogales CBP agriculture specialist discovered two adult shield bugs, Euschistus crenator subsp. orbiculator (Pentatomidae), on a commercial shipment of fresh corn entering from Mexico. The nymphs and adults have piercing mouthparts that most use to suck sap from plants, although some eat other insects.

Around Christmastime, agents for the Port of Baltimore discovered a specimen of Stenopterapion tenue, a little-known species of wood-boring weevil, first noted in Savannah, Ga., in 2005.

“A first insect pest discovery in our port brings equal parts celebration and concern,” said CBP Baltimore Agriculture Supervisor David Ng. “CBP agriculture specialists take very seriously our mission of protecting American agriculture, and each pest interception is a little victory of sorts. A ‘first discovery’ also reinforces our determination to work with our import partners to take appropriate measures to mitigate any potential reoccurrence.”

The weevil hitchhiked in, not on agricultural goods, but in a shipment of Italian tiles. This time, CBP agriculture specialists issued an Emergency Action Notification, requiring the importer to fumigate the container and its contents.

“We don’t know much about this particular species of weevil, but we do know that it isn’t indigenous to the U.S., and if left unchecked could have a profound impact on America’s crop plant industries,” said Ng.

While anti-terrorism is the primary mission of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the inspection process at the ports of entry associated with this mission results in impressive numbers of enforcement actions in all categories, CBP says. Sometimes it is packaged food that trips an alarm.

Agents at the Gateway International Bridge in Brownsville, Texas, seized $970,000 worth of heroin that was packed in aluminum food cans. It marked the second time in four days that officers discovered heroin hidden in sealed food cans, said Michael Freeman, CBP port director, Brownsville Port of Entry. “Our CBP officers’ training has been instrumental in these seizures as they continue to stop dangerous drugs from reaching our city streets. I applaud our officers for their diligence and commitment to our nation’s security,” he said. CBP officers turned the woman driving the Ford truck over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement-Homeland Security Investigations special agents for further investigation.

Since nuts, both fresh and packaged, are a major part of the commerce flowing across the border, producers, packers and haulers can anticipate continued close inspection of nut products. As security and FSMA regulations are firmed up over the next two years, nut producers should keep a close eye on provisions that affect the industry.

Curt Harler is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor. He resides in Strongsville, Ohio.