(Nov. 20) It’s been nearly four years since the Food and Drug Administration implemented prior-notice requirements for importers, but opinions vary widely on how well the system is working.

Lee Frankel, president of the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas, Nogales, Ariz., said the system has reached only “10% to 20% of its long-term potential,” in part because the FDA has been slow to implement new software.

He also said officers at border crossings think there isn’t proper follow-up when violations are reported. In short, Frankel said the FDA has not justified the expense to an industry that has changed its supply chain and logistics to accommodate the system.

Prior notice, part of the Bioterrorism Act of 2002, was designed to help the FDA and Customs and Border Protection officials detect foods that might be intentionally contaminated.

Former FDA lawyer Benjamin England blasted prior notice in a recent USA Today article, saying the system had not improved food safety because information provided by shippers to the FDA revealed few clues about risk.

George Mendez, owner of G. Mendez & Co. Inc., Nogales, disagreed.

“Of course it makes things safer,” he said. “It gives them prior notice of what’s coming in. They look at everything, especially when people have had problems in the past. Those are people they really watch. There are some commodities that have more problems than others.”

Juan Cruz Jr. of Allegiant Customs Brokers LLC, Pharr, Texas, said he had no problems with the system.

“Customs and the FDA have better control of who’s importing and what’s coming in,” he said. “It’s very easy. It’s basic information like company name, address, phone number, e-mail and type of commodities.”

Frankel acknowledged that more prohibited items are being caught at the border than four years ago, but he said prior notice has not succeeded in one of its primary functions, separating low-risk items from high-risk items.

“It shows how bad the old system was,” he said. “It’s picked up shipments of things that are on the prohibited list. Things were slipping through before the prior notice system.”

Frankel said one of FPAA’s members had more than 90% of its shipments held up for review at the border last season despite the fact that the company had caused no prior problems and was involved with low-risk commodities.

“That’s wasting scarce resources,” Frankel said of the inspections.