McALLEN, Texas — When there’s a backlog of trucks full of Mexican fruits and vegetables at the Pharr-Reynosa Port of Entry, it’s easy to blame the government agencies tasked with overseeing imports.

But as a group of industry members from Texas, Arizona, other states and Mexico recently found out, the process involves a handful of agencies working together to prevent everything from pests, untreated wooden pallets, drugs or weapons of mass destruction to enter the U.S.

Port officials gave the group a rare look into how fresh produce is handled at the border crossing March 30, in connection with the inaugural America Trades Produce conference, March 30-April 1.

“It’s important to us for you to see what we do here,” said Gene Garza Jr., who oversees eight ports of entry on the Texas border as the director of field operations for the Laredo office of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

“We don’t get a lot of opportunities for visitors,” assistant port director for cargo Javier Cantu said.

An average of 1,700 to 1,800 commercial trucks cross into the U.S. at the port each weekday, said David Pena, cargo supervisor for Customs and Border Protection.

Those numbers are rising, he said.

“This port of entry has constantly grown,” Pena said. “We’re seeing a growth spurt now.”

During low traffic, trucks can be processed — barring any circumstances that trigger an in-depth inspection and off-loading of cargo — in 20-25 minutes, he said. With heavy early morning traffic, that time lag can top 50 minutes. That’s when two overflow lanes can be opened to improve the flow of traffic, with a total of eight lanes, Pena said.

Of all commercial trucks crossing at the Pharr-Reynosa Port, about 25% are fruits and vegetables, port officials said, and about 60% of the produce is a high-volume import crop that carries a low risk for introducing plant pests and diseases — a determination made through the National Agricultural Release Program.

Cabbage and broccoli are high-risk. Avocados and mangoes are low-risk.

In Mexico, there are more than 125 actionable pests concerning trade with the U.S., an APHIS spokesperson said.

Although some of the Customs and Border Patrol officials are trained to identify pests, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service staff at the port.

According to APHIS, if just one “actionable pest” — a bug that hasn’t been established in the U.S. yet — is found in a load, it is rejected immediately. The owner has two options: Destroy the entire load or return it to Mexico. In the most recent fiscal year, there were 5,067 actionable pests found.

Some fruit receives a cursory inspection of its outside appearance, while others including mangoes and avocados are sliced to check for pests — a process repeated thousands of times a day.

Other agencies involved at the port are the Food and Drug Administration, which checks everything from medical devices/medicine to pesticide residues on produce, and the Department of Transportation, which conducts multiple checklists to ensure Mexican trucks are safe before they enter the U.S.

While some of the port’s activities rely on keen eyesight, such as pest detection, technology has rapidly become an integral part of keeping trucks moving but providing an in-depth assessment.

That includes an X-ray machine that can see through more than a foot of solid steel and can process a truck in minutes, checking for contraband and radioactive materials that could be used in an bomb.

Technology databases also allow companies that import a lot of produce to move through the ports faster, including CT-PAT — Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism — and FAST — Free and Secure Trade.

Hector Mancha, director of the port for Customs and Border Protection, said about 10,000 drivers are registered in CT-PAT and about 800 are in FAST.

“We need your help to expand participation in these programs because they help us expedite legitimate trade and at the same time enhance our national security,” Mancha told a group of conference attendees March 31 at a session on port congestion.

Jerry Havel, director of sales and marketing for Fresh Farms, Rio Rico, Ariz., wasn’t shy about asking numerous questions during the tour — and no one dodged his questions.

“They were prepared at each station we stopped at and answered all and any questions as thoroughly and honestly as possible,” said Havel, who called the tour “awesome.”

“The personnel that conducted the tour were extremely organized, professional and efficient,” he said.

The conference, sponsored by the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas, Nogales, Ariz., and the Texas Produce Association, Mission, is expected to take place in Arizona next year. Lance Jungmeyer, president of the FPAA, said he plans to schedule a similar tour at the Mariposa Port of Entry in Nogales.

Port tour shows complexity of border crossing

Chris Koger

 A U.S. Customs and Border Protection employee sorts through key limes to detect pests on March 30 at the Pharr-Reynosa Port of Entry south of McAllen, Texas. The agency works with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to identify pests and reject loads if needed.