Wanted: ''Food Shield''

Wanted: ''Food Shield''

Copyright 2003, Traffic World, Inc.

Top government and trucking industry officials say shippers may have to cope with increased delays, more paperwork and higher costs as the country creates a "food shield" to protect the American food supply from a terrorist with deadly pathogens.

Due to take effect Dec. 12, new rules from the Food and Drug Administration are aimed at guarding against everything from a tainted supply of grain to an adulterated bottle of water.

And what do the new rules cover? Just about anything one can eat, drink, inhale, smoke, ingest or otherwise consume as food, semiprocessed or processed food, beverage or any combination of raw materials used to produce same. That includes raw agricultural commodities, fish and seafood, live food animals, canned foods, baked goods, snacks and alcoholic beverages, among many others.

"Those are just some of the examples,'''' says Julio Salazar, an official with the FDA''s Southwest import district office based in Laredo, Texas. And he says truckers and shippers have to be very specific in identification of their goods. "''Lettuce'' won''t suffice," he says. "We''ll need to know ''iceberg lettuce.''''''

To be sure, truckers say these new rules are going to cost shippers some serious green.

Charles L. Whittington, chairman of the American Trucking Associations'' Agricultural and Food Transporters Conference, noted the Department of Homeland Security has received a $29.4 billion budget for the current fiscal year and that some of that money will be spent safeguarding truckers'' food loads.

About 90 percent of all fruits and vegetables produced by the $1.3 trillion U.S. agriculture industry are hauled by truck, along with 65 percent of the grain.

"They (terrorists) are not looking at just one pathogen or one release," said Jeremy Stump, director of the Department of Agriculture''s Office on Homeland Security. "They''re looking to do the most damage. We are very concerned about multiple attacks and multiple releases."

ATA''s Agricultural and Food Transporters Conference worked with the Department of Agriculture to develop a "Guide for Security Management Practices in Agricultural Commodity Transportation." The two groups will survey 25,000 trucking companies that haul agriculture commodities to determine what security measures have been implemented since September 11.

"You are going to hear a lot more about security. Whether you like it or not, you are going to have to get on the train with these people," Whittington told a group of trucking executives at the recent ATA convention.

As part of their partnership, ATA and USDA will modify an existing security management practices guide for agriculture transporters and a risk assessment tool already developed by ATA for the trucking industry to tailor the guide specifically for transporters of agricultural commodities.

Truckers are breathing a sigh of relief after the government softened its original proposals for crossborder food shipments. Originally, the government was requiring 24 hours advance notification, a proposal truckers say would have significantly added to costs and caused further delays at the border.

The new FDA rule requires at least two hours notice on crossborder food shipments. It''s a rule truckers say they can live with - given the original rule, which took up 703 pages in its original form. "This is a good outcome, especially considering what the outcome could have been," says Fletcher Hall, executive director of ATA''s Agricultural and Food Transporters Conference.

"They are extremely interested in bringing trucking into the loop, far more than I''ve ever seen in the past," Hall said of USDA. "I don''t think there''s any question about it. We''re going to see more regulations and guidelines. But if we can work with these folks up front, we can head off some things that we don''t want."

The FDA''s Salazar says the government is working "very hard" with industry to draft workable food import border regulation but admits it''s a huge job.

The effort is because of fears of terrorists tampering with the nation''s food supply. Upwards of 80 percent of that food supply is controlled by four multinational agribusinesses: Del Monte, Dole, Con Agra and Archer Daniels Midland. The Bush administration has said it is likely that terrorists would try a food bioterrorism attack within the next year.

The response was the 2002 Bioterrorism Response Act, passed with little debate in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks. The final rules require that shippers increase their identification of crossborder foodstuffs shipments so that carriers can receive the government''s electronic clearance no more than five days and no less than two hours before a shipment is due to cross the American north and south borders.

Lauren Perez, international trade advisor for Miami-based Sandler, Travis & Rosenberg, calls the new FDA regulations "the most sweeping changes in U.S. food law in over a century." They figure to hit trucking more than any other mode because of trucking''s omnipresence and because the industry has not agreed on an automated standard manifest.

USDA''s Stump said the government is "very concerned" about introduction of a pathogen into this nation''s food system.

"We know terrorist groups, al Qaeda and others, have looked into release of a pathogen into our food supply," Stump recently told a truckers group. USDA recently hired 20 additional inspectors and issued voluntary security guidelines to help develop protection measures specifically governing meat and poultry supplies.

Stump said various government agencies also are working to keep everyone concerned with security in the loop. "That''s the buzzword in Washington - communication," Stump said. "We''re not there yet. But we''re working on it. Working with our private-sector and state partners is key for us. We need to have our best and our brightest working on this."

USDA''s homeland security office is asking for $330 million to conduct research on emerging animal diseases, develop new vaccines and expand diagnostic and other scientific measures.