SAN DIEGO — Back-ups at U.S. ports and U.S.-Mexican border crossings are projected to grow worse as governmental agencies grapple with continued staffing shortages, import volumes increase and looming food safety regulations that likely will increase inspections.

That was the grim forecast provided by two international trade experts during an afternoon United Fresh Tech Learning Center presentation on May 16.

“I see no strategic relief on the horizon,” said Bruce McEvoy, director of global affairs for Seald Sweet LLC/Univeg Group, Vero Beach, Fla.

During his tenure with the produce industry, McEvoy said he’s seen imports grow as consumers increasingly demand year-round fruits and vegetables, citing citrus as an example.

In the 1990s, summer citrus imports were almost nonexistent, and retailers weren’t receptive.

“Retailers had this perception that consumers wouldn’t eat fresh citrus in the summer time — why, flavor fatigue, competing fruits and overall costs,” he said.

That proved to be untrue, and the imported citrus market has grown to more than 200 million metric tons this season compared with only 15 million metric tons in the mid-1990s, McEvoy said.

Increased imports, inspector shortages converge to clog portsTo meet U.S. pest requirements, South African citrus, for example, undergoes a 24-day cold treatment in transit. Any holds put on the shipment for further inspections or testing once it arrives could further degrade it, he said.

“By the time that cargo gets to the states, it doesn’t have any legs,” McEvoy said. “If it’s delayed three to five days, it’s not good for the market.”

Unscheduled delays could cause the shipment to miss the retailer’s scheduled promotional window.

McEvoy said shipments already are being detained for routine inspections by the Food and Drug Administration, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Environmental Protection Agency and Home Security Agency, all of which are understaffed.

Although the portion of the Food Safety Modernization Act that applies to imports has yet to be published, McEvoy said he expects a greater number of loads will be detained for increased inspections and testing.

Back-ups at the border

John McClung, former president and chief executive officer of the Mission-based Texas International Produce Association who still consults for the group, said increases in import volumes crossing the U.S.-Mexican border also have created backlogs.

About 98% of all Mexican produce imports enter through land ports in Texas, Arizona, California and to a lesser extent, New Mexico, he said.

During fiscal year 2012, about 140,000 18-wheelers crossed the border, and the FDA had only four inspectors to clear the trucks.

The number of inspectors has since increased to eight, but truckloads also have climbed to 150,000 annually, McClung said.

“The FDA is making it very clear that in the future they will not have the personnel on the borders to enforce the Food Safety Modernization Act,” he said.

Some have suggested that the produce industry assess itself possibly $20 per truck to hire more inspectors and speed clearance, McClung said.

But he said that doesn’t sit well with some, who say they don’t want to pay again for a service the government should already be performing.

But other importers have a different opinion.

“Others say if a $20,000 load of papayas is on the import lot and getting it cleared costs $20, that’s not such a difficult decision to make,” he said. “It’s a slippery slope.”

Audience member Lance Jungmeyer, president of the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas, Nogales, Ariz., agreed.

“They view the border as a checkout lane, and they’re going to charge us money,” he said.

Jungmeyer said he also is concerned about increasing delays at the Mariposa Port of Entry, Nogales, as the number of lanes for commercial vehicles has increased to eight from four.

The lanes are part of an overall multimillion-dollar port expansion project funded by economic stimulus dollars.

FDA inspectors typically work 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m., yet most produce loads cross between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m., he said.

“Usually, it sits there for a day just for visual inspections,” Jungmeyer said. Microbial testing, which should take three to five days, currently takes 10-11 days.

“The FDA has a chronic shortage of lab capacity,” he said.

Jungmeyer said he expects delays to only grow as the safety modernization act requires additional testing of imports.