When John McClung stepped down as head of the Mission-based Texas International Produce Association last year, he transferred his leadership talents to the organization’s voluntary Border Issues Management Program.
The produce association initiated the program to deal with border concerns ranging from congestion to food safety to infrastructure needs.
As he prepared to retire from his position as coordinator of BIMP on Nov. 22, McClung said program has made significant progress over the past year.
“Things are going nicely for us,” he said.
Most notably, the association saw a 13% increase in membership in 2013.
“For any regional produce association to get that kind of a jump in membership is a pretty rare thing these days,” he said.
McClung attributed much of that membership boost to the addition of importers and those involved with the import industry.
“Everybody in the industry that’s involved with imports/exports recognizes that is — at least for South Texas — going to be a huge part of our future,” he said.
When the Mazatlan-Durango Highway opens, possibly early next year, however, challenges at the U.S./Mexico border crossing are only likely to increase.
Import volume could rise 30% in south Texas, and shipments could double over time as production in Mexico increases, McClung said.
“We’re looking at very substantial increases,” he said, and that’s a concern because there already are infrastructure issues at the port of entry.
U.S. Department of Agriculture, Customs and Border Patrol and Food and Drug Administration inspectors are one of those issues.
“There aren’t enough of them,” McClung said.
The government is aware of the lack of manpower, he said, “But what can you do about it in tight economic times?”
Many Nogales, Ariz., distributors already have opened branches in south Texas to handle product coming in via the Pharr-Reynosa bridge and other bridges, all of which require federal inspectors.
“We worry that the increase in volume will be more than can be handled efficiently,” McClung said.
The Food Safety Modernization Act will be another issue.
“That’s a huge deal,” McClung said.
One section of the proposed regulations covers imports and says about 25,000 facilities in Mexico will have to be approved by FDA. They’ll have to register and implement programs to ensure food safety, he said.
“Basically, they have to meet the same requirements as domestic facilities,” McClung said.
No one is sure what the consequences of the law will be for the federal agencies or for the facilities, he said.
“The FDA is struggling with it because they don’t have the personnel.”
On a positive note, some changes are in the works that could take some of the pressure off federal inspectors.
Customs and Border Patrol is the primary inspection agency, but border patrol has limited release authority in some cases — such as when certain insects are detected in a load. When that happens, inspectors from USDA’s Animal Plant Health Inspection Service must be called in.
“APHIS has agreed to train CBP to be more knowledgeable about the insect issue and to have greater cargo release authority,” McClung said.
APHIS also has agreed to station a full-time insect identifier at the Pharr-Reynosa bridge, he said.
The government is looking at technical advances that can be used to speed up the border crossing process, including considering a product’s track record.
“(Product) that is statistically unlikely to be problematic will be moved through a little more quickly,” he said, while product that has a history of representing health or safety problems will be scrutinized.
McClung thinks that the agriculture industry and the government in south Texas probably have as good or better a relationship as ever.
“We’ve been doing a lot of talking to each other,” he said. “They know what our problems are, we know what their problems are, and we try to accommodate one another’s needs.”