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Air cargo must be screened

Exporters of perishables hope new rules don’t cause delays

Workers sort cherries  for defects at the Chinchiolo Stemilt packing facility in Stockton, Calif.  (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Workers sort cherries for defects at the Chinchiolo Stemilt packing facility in Stockton, Calif. (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Shannon Dininny Associated Press

YAKIMA – Thousands of boxes of Washington cherries will be loaded onto passenger planes in coming weeks, bound for Pacific Rim countries like Japan and Korea.

Or so farmers hope.

Growers and shippers of highly perishable crops like cherries worry that a new requirement that all cargo on U.S. passenger flights undergo a security scan could create huge delays, leaving crops to rot in hangars as they await inspection.

“Consumers get on a plane and believe, ‘My purse has been screened, my person has been screened, everything has been screened.’ They don’t realize that in the belly of the plane there’s a lot of commerce that hasn’t been,” said Mark Powers of the Washington state Horticultural Association, which promotes exports for tree fruit growers across the Northwest.

“Congress recognized that and addressed it, but there’s a cost associated with it,” he said.

Produce is usually exported by ship or freight plane, and very little that’s transported within the U.S. goes by air. But the new rules involve all passenger flights, international and domestic. And some growers consider passenger planes vital because freight service isn’t available or frequent enough in some markets and ships can take too long.

Congress mandated in 2007 that all cargo on passenger flights be screened by August 2010 and set an interim deadline of February 2009 for cargo on 50 percent of flights. The Transportation Security Administration met the interim deadline, largely by focusing on narrow-body passenger planes that each carry far less cargo.

The focus now is wide-body planes, which carry 75 percent of cargo that travels on domestic passenger flights and 96 percent of cargo on international passenger flights.

Fear that the new regulations will cause delays is leading some freight companies to consider trucking shipments to Canada and flying them from there, where cargo screening is less stringent.

But a TSA spokesman predicted smooth flying.

“We don’t expect there to be any slowdown in commerce when it comes to the movement of agricultural goods through the system, said Dwayne Baird, TSA spokesman. “That’s as much a concern, keeping commerce moving, as the security concern.”

Roughly one-third of the cherries grown in Washington state, where farmers are expecting a hefty crop, are exported, nearly half on passenger planes – about 1.3 million 20-pound boxes. Overall, about one-fourth of U.S. crops are exported, only a small fraction by passenger plane.

Keith Mathews, executive director of the Yakima Valley Growers-Shippers Association, said the industry will probably send more cherries by ship this year than last year.

“That saves some cost, but that’s also a little bit insecure, in that cherries have a fairly short shelf life,” he said.

One of the nation’s largest fruit producers, Stemilt Growers Inc. in Wenatchee, plans to continue using a freight forwarder to ship cherries from its orchards in California and Washington. So far, security charges from the freight forwarder – about 10 cents for every 2.2 pounds – haven’t risen, said Roger Pepperl, Stemilt spokesman.

That could change as those companies assume the costs of additional screening.

The new machinery can cost anywhere from $40,000 to $500,000, according to Brandon Fried, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Airforwarders Association.

“I can tell that the growers are very concerned about this, and I think legitimately so,” he said.

Universal Freight Forwarders in Tukwila, Wash., which handles cargo for some of the biggest growers in the Northwest, may address the rule change by modifying its practices and sending much less produce on passenger planes, said Sylvia Scherer, a customs broker for the company.

“We work 24 hours a day, seven days a week to get the cherries moving during harvest, and to add this whole lengthy, time-consuming operation to our warehouse is something,” Scherer said. “We’ll do what we have to do to move the freight and either meet the regulations or avoid them,” Scherer said.

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