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Fresh cherry exporters have to comply this season with new federal regulations requiring screening of cargo on passenger ships and aircraft because of terrorism concerns.

The regulations were announced by the Transportation Security Administration last December and came into effect in February.

More than 90 percent of Pacific Northwest cherry exports go by air, and 50 percent go on passenger planes, said Mark Powers, vice president at the Northwest Horticultural Council.

Cherries can be physically inspected by breaking the pallet, opening the carton, and lifting them out in the liner to look for any foreign object or explosive device. Alternatively, whole pallets can be x-rayed or screened with an explosive trace detector.

Some cherry shippers will have the screening done by their freight forwarding companies. In other cases, the air carrier might do the screening. Some cherry shippers have been exploring the possibility of screening the product themselves during the packing process.

Whether it’s feasible for a packer to screen their own cherries depends on a number of factors, Powers said, such as the physical layout of the plant, the number of people involved, and the ability to deal with the large amount of paperwork involved. Physical barriers would be needed at the plant, staff would have to be trained, and everyone who had access to the cherries would need background checks.

"It’s a rigorous kind of program, so TSA has been working with firms to try to see how each individual firm might comply or become a certified screening facility," he said.

X-ray machines and explosive trace detectors are expensive, and currently there is no machine approved for screening pallets at a packing house, Powers said, so the fruit would have to be physically inspected.

Technology

Ideally, there would be some technology that could be approved for use that could be segregated from the packing line in an area where a limited number of people have access, he said. The Hort Council has been pushing the TSA to find that technological solution.

The advantage of screening at the packing house is that it removes some uncertainties about what might happen to the fruit further down the road, he said. It puts the shipper in control.

Whichever way it’s done, the screening is likely to result in additional costs, Powers said. For example, background checks cost $32 per employee. It’s not yet known what freight forwarders or air carriers might charge.

The regulations stipulate that 50 percent of the cargo must be screened but exactly what constitutes that 50 percent is not yet known. For example, a shipment of cherries might not need to be screened if enough of the rest of the cargo on the plane had already been screened.

Screening can be avoided entirely by shipping cherries by freighter, rather than passenger aircraft or ships, or shipping via Canada if there is sufficient capacity.

Real test

Powers said the screening process appears to be working without difficulties for other airfreighted products, but the first real test for cherries will be the California season. How smoothly the cherry screening goes for Northwest cherries will depend partly on the size of the crop, he said. "If it’s a small crop like we had last year, there’s not going to be the pressure on the system that there would be if this is a record crop."

It will also depend on the timing of shipments and the length of the peak shipping period.

The TSA has agreed to place canine units at Seattle-Tacoma, Los Angeles, and San Francisco airports to assist in the screening of cherries for this first season.  Dogs are probably the best at screening large volumes of product quickly, Powers said. By August of 2010, all cargo will have to be inspected, not 50 percent, so that will affect late-season cherries next year.

The requirements are unlikely to change materially, and the TSA, at the Hort Council’s urging, has devoted much time to working with carriers, freight forwarders, and shippers to figure out how the screening can best be done for cherries, he said. "It’s not just the cherry industry that they’re dealing with. That’s part of the complexity."

Quarantine requirements complicate the issue. For example, many Northwest cherries are exported via California. If fruit were inspected in California for cherry fruit fly, which is a quarantine pest, the security seal would be broken. Screened product must not be opened before it is delivered to another secure facility. Similarly, fumigated cherries are taped shut until they reach their destination, but if the cherries are screened with x-ray equipment, rather than physically inspected, the seal would not have to be broken.

"The challenge is to find a solution that allows both the phytosanitary requirements and the TSA’s requirements to be met," Powers said. "There are unique complications that TSA is still grappling with for screening cherries. I think a lot of the people we’re dealing with recognize that they don’t want to stop commerce because of screening issues, and yet they’ve got a legitimate security concern. Everybody wants to be on a plane where the cargo’s been screened. The question is how do you accomplish that and still allow the commerce to flow. That’s fairly difficult."