WENATCHEE – Washington tree fruit companies are anxiously awaiting a new Homeland Security rule that they say could disrupt about $60 million worth of cherry exports next season.
The new rule from the Transportation Security Administration will detail how boxes of cherries must be screened for security threats.
The rule was due to be published in November, but legal review has held it up, said Mark Powers, vice president of the Northwest Horticultural Council in Yakima.
For now, fruit companies don’t know whether they will be able to perform – or afford – the screening, Powers said.
About one-third of the Pacific Northwest cherry crop is exported each season. Half of the exports are transported in cargo planes and won’t be affected, but the other half go in the cargo holds of passenger planes.
Under a law implementing recommendations of the Sept. 11 Commission, the TSA must make sure at least half of the cargo on passenger planes is screened for bombs or other security threats, starting this February, Powers said.
Airlines and freight forwarding companies said they will not do the screening so it is falling to fruit packers, Powers said.
“The logistics of screening at an airport by freight forwarders is very difficult to imagine because there isn’t an approved screening device that can handle a full pallet” of boxed cherries, Powers said.
Pallets would have to be broken apart and each 20-pound box of cherries run through a machine or opened, he said.
To avoid that, companies are exploring doing the screening in their own packing sheds, but the expense and requirements are unclear without having the rule in hand, he said.
It would be impractical to put all the cherries on cargo planes or ships, Powers said. And trying to sell all the cherries domestically would be an “unmitigated disaster,” he said.
“We’ve never sold it all on the domestic market,” he said. “We need exports to keep prices strong.”
Strawberries and asparagus also will be affected by the rule, but apples and pears won’t because they are shipped in ocean containers, he said.
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