Entering the Port of Chicago, one pharmaceuticals importer felt as if it were in the movie “Groundhog Day.” The shipper was caught up in red tape every time it brought goods into the port, said Brenda Smith, executive director of trade policy and programs for Customs and Border Protection.
“The manager told us that every time they go into Chicago, they got stopped and asked for this particular piece of paper — 400 times a year,” Smith said. They always needed the piece of paper. No one ever said what the problem was, and, really, nobody seemed to care.
“They said, ‘Can you fix it?’ ”
Turns out the U.S. Department of Agriculture needed a paper document to track animal products used in drug manufacturing.
A problem such as this is tailor-made for Customs’ new Centers of Excellence and Expertise. Smith said after they found what the hold-up was, there was an easy solution. “They could get a blanket certificate that would cover all of the imports in a particular year from somebody that you know is low-risk. The USDA said, ‘Great idea!’ ”
The Centers of Excellence and Expertise is one of the tangible products of Customs’ efforts to facilitate trade championed by former Commissioner Alan Bersin. After being tested for a year at centers for the pharmaceutical and chemical industries in New York and the electronics industry in Los Angeles, Customs is preparing to launch CEEs in seven other areas that will cover all imports.
Importers will still file entries and have cargo released by the ports, but the centers will take charge of post-entry processing, Smith said. If there’s a question with classification, or an importer needs a binding ruling, it will be handled through the center.
“All the analysis that is done, the questions that are asked, the decisions that are made, all will be made in the CEE on the entry summary issues,” Smith said. The system should provide greater uniformity in the way Customs handles entries. The account executive at each center also will have the same authority as a port director. That gives the centers some clout, but the ports benefit as well. They will not have to spend time inspecting cargo that’s already shown to be low risk.
It’s impossible to talk about the CEE without another new term in Customs’ lexicon: trusted partner. Those are the centers’ customers, Smith said. A trusted partner is certified in both the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism and the Importer Self-Assessment programs. Trusted partners present Customs with the lowest security and trade compliance risks.
“Even before the goods are flowing, we can label them trusted partners,” Smith said.
The pharmaceutical center of excellence already is getting positive reviews from its clients, said Anthony Barone, director of global logistics policy for Pfizer.
Instead of having Customs officers spread all over the country, “now they have people who can lean across the desk and ask each other questions instead of going back to the importer,” Barone said.
“What does arise are glitches with entries. It could happen to any entry at any port in the country,” he said. “Now we can pick up the phone and call the center and resolve it. The folks at the port can pick up the phone and resolve the issue with people who know the business, and know the company.”
Better late than never?
Proposed Industry Groupings
- Agriculture & Prepared Products.
- Automotive & Aerospace .
- Base Metals & Machinery.
- Consumer Products.
- Industrial & Manufacturing Materials.
- Information Technology & Consumer Electronics.*
- Petroleum, Natural Gas & Minerals.
- Pharmaceuticals, Health & Chemicals.*
- Textiles, Wearing Apparel & Footwear.
Smith said it would be up to Acting Commissioner David Aguilar to decide the schedule for opening new CEEs. In addition to the first two, there will be centers for aviation and automotive products, consumer products, textiles and wearing apparel, agriculture and prepared products, base metals and machinery, industrial and manufacturing materials, and petroleum, natural gas and minerals.
“They’re broad categories, but it makes sense to put them together,” Smith said. “They have similar classification issues, and their supply chains look similar.”
The centers also will focus attention on compliant importers that aren’t in C-TPAT or the Importer Self-Assessment programs, Smith said. If there is somebody who isn’t a trusted partner, but the agency learns a lot about them, she said, “we could reach out to that company and ask why they don’t join the programs.”
The centers may be able to clear the obstacles to bring new companies into the ring of trusted partners, Smith said. “That’s the vision. We’ll see how it goes.”