The toy manufacturer Hasbro sells a musical toothbrush. It's designed to play a cheerful three-minute tune while kids brush their teeth. When the tune ends, kids know they have brushed long enough. The company has sold 1 million toothbrushes, but importing them from China did not go as smoothly as Hasbro planned.
Making trade flow smoother for all importers is one of Barry O'Brien's goals for the next two years. On Feb. 14, O'Brien, director of global trade and customs at Hasbro, attended his first meeting as a member of COAC, the influential private-sector committee that advises Customs and Border Protection on trade matters.
Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, COAC has been heavily engaged in defining Customs' new mission as defender of the U.S. borders from terrorists. COAC, formally the Departmental Advisory Committee for Commercial Operations of Customs and Border Protection and Related Agencies, has been Customs' partner, sounding board, industry liaison and co-author of virtually every supply-chain security measure that's come along in the past six years.
Now O'Brien is among COAC members who think it's time to spend more time on questions of trade facilitation. Customs' mission is a balance of security and facilitation, and over the past few years, the scales have been tipped toward security.
"This is what facilitation means. With all these things going on, with all the things we're building, why can't we connect the dots? Why can't we enhance the process?" O'Brien said.
O'Brien has been an outspoken advocate for supply-chain security. Hasbro was a charter member of the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism. Companies have spent billions on security, but the expectation is they should be able to recoup the costs because goods are moving through the system more smoothly as well as more securely.
Which brings us back to Hasbro's musical toothbrushes: Customs cleared them, no problem, but at the last minute the Food and Drug Administration ordered the shipment held for inspection. It took another week to get the toothbrushes into the U.S., O'Brien said.
If Customs is developing systems for security and facilitation, shouldn't other government agencies be on board? O'Brien wonders. "Wouldn't it make sense, if Customs is clearing my goods when they leave the Port of Hong Kong, we can meet the FDA requirements at the same time?"
The "10+2" regulation is designed to give Customs more time for security screening by requiring importers and carriers to provide data that isn't on the carrier's manifest. O'Brien said the regulation also gives importers an opportunity to file import entries when a ship leaves a foreign port, rather than five days before arrival. Importers would have additional time to arrange inland transportation and distribution, and save millions in inventory costs.
Why can't other agencies use the data at the same time? It will be available through the Automated Commercial Environment and International Trade Data System. So far, only a handful of government agencies with interests at the border are ITDS participants.
This is the kind of trade facilitation issue that COAC should be addressing, O'Brien said. "Why can't we benefit from this technology? We're going to work on that goal through ACE. Maybe it will happen in the next few years."
For the past six years, COAC has been "cleaning up and fine-tuning all those areas that were affected by security," said Curtis Spencer, president of IMS Worldwide, who is beginning his second term on COAC. "Customs has matured in its security role. They know what they're doing. After six years, there are a lot of things that have to do with trade facilitation that have been left on the back burner. This is no bash on Customs, but their focus has been on security, not on facilitation."
For the first time in COAC history, the 20 members of the 10th COAC session since 1987 agreed to establish a set of goals and objectives to be achieved over the next two years. Those will be ready by the group's meeting in May. The group's charter calls for a meeting each quarter, but the group will have monthly teleconferences to supplement the formal meetings, said COAC leader Bruce Leeds, senior import-export adviser at Boeing Co.