USDA expands in-transit cold treatment program

USDA expands in-transit cold treatment program

In-transit cold treatment can eliminate infestations of certain species of insects, such as fruit flies, from US import cargoes. Photo credit: Shutterstock.com.

A little more than five years ago, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) started a trial program in several Southeast ports aimed at facilitating imports of certain fresh fruits provided they were “cold treated” en route to control pests that posed a risk to domestic agriculture.

The trial attracted interest from beneficial cargo owners (BCOs), ocean carriers, and ports, all of which saw immense opportunities to open new trade lanes that could expedite perishable produce to major consumer markets and dramatically boost shelf life, as well as reduce transit times, particularly by truck.

According to Laura A. Jeffers, Ph.D., national operations manager for phytosanitary irradiation and cold treatment programs at the USDA, however, the in-transit cold treatment program was hardly new.

“USDA has long embraced cold treatment as an effective and environmentally friendly way to treat fruits and vegetables,” Jeffers said. “It can eliminate certain insect infestations, most notably fruit flies, when specified temperatures and time periods are precisely followed. Treatments can happen in warehouses or in maritime transit in a vessel’s refrigerated compartment or refrigerated containers.”

The process helps USDA to safely process increased trade volume while preventing — or at least reducing the risk of — the introduction of invasive species on imported commodities. Cold treatment also fuels economic activity in areas with approved treatment facilities, and it allows consumers to enjoy a wider array of fresh produce, such as apples, pears, blueberries, and citrus, even when out of season in the United States.

The exporting country is responsible for precooling fruit intended for in-transit cold treatment. The fruit must reach a specific temperature before treatment begins, and the exporting country must randomly sample fruit at the precooling location to verify that this has taken place. USDA approves and verifies temperature recording equipment.

“USDA often uses other safeguarding measures in addition to cold treatment,” Jeffers said. “This series of safeguards are called a ‘systems approach.’ The measures work in combination to minimize pest risks prior to importation into the United States. Should one measure fail, the others still offer protection.”

If cold treatment inside the container isn’t completed before the vessel arrives at the port, the container can be discharged and then plugged in, often at the terminal, to finish the treatment. In addition, if there is a failure with the cold treatment on the vessel or inside a container, the shipment can be unloaded and taken to a certified warehouse, where it can be re-treated.

The bulk of the work for in-transit cold treatment shipments falls on US Customs and Border Protection (CBP). CBP agriculture specialists physically inspect cold-treated commodities and quarantine them for re-treatment or re-exportation when pests are discovered.

By comparison, USDA’s role is to review data from the cold-treated shipments and essentially issue a passing or failing grade. When an entire vessel undergoes cold treatment, USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection (APHIS) agents are required to physically board the vessel, gather data, and review it on board. But when it involves individual containers, the process is handled remotely. More cold treatment is occurring inside the container these days as opposed to on a vessel, which mirrors the increasing containerization of refrigerated products globally.

Recent rule change

USDA’s in-transit cold treatment program has long been established in the US Northeast ports such as Philadelphia and Wilmington, Delaware. Initially, regulations limited the program to facilities located north of 39 degrees latitude and east of 104 degrees longitude — approximately the northeastern quarter of the country. With considerable interest from industry in recent years, however, USDA is planning to expand the program, adding cold treatment facilities in the southern and western parts of the country.

“Over the years, USDA has received ad hoc requests to approve facilities in southern and western states,” Jeffers said. “To approve such facilities, APHIS had to grant a special exemption through rulemaking.” After a rule change in 2018, facility approval no longer requires rulemaking, but the safeguards and evaluation process remain the same.

APHIS has approved nine cold treatment locations in southern and western states: the maritime ports of Corpus Christie, Texas; Gulfport, Mississippi; Miami/Port Everglades, Florida; Savannah, Georgia; Seattle, Washington; and Wilmington, North Carolina; as well as the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in Georgia; the MidAmerica Airport in Mascoutah, Illinois; and Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in Washington state.

USDA’s latest cold treatment rule amends its treatment regulations to standardize the process for approving new cold treatment facilities in southern and western states. It also establishes generic criteria that these facilities must follow to safely treat imported commodities.

While the new process will eliminate the rulemaking requirement for new cold treatment facilities in southern and western states, Jeffers said USDA will still evaluate each proposed location and approve it only if sufficient safeguards are identified and the location’s state concurs with the proposal.

“If a state provides concerns, we will work with the states to address their concerns prior to approving the facility,” she said. “This collaboration with our state partners is a vital component of the revised process and helps ensure that state agricultural interests are safeguarded when specific pest concerns exist.”

Contact Lara L. Sowinski at lsowinski@gmail.com.