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A Full Plate

Release Date: 
May 1, 2020

CBP continues to process tons of food imports every day, even while COVID-19 throttles back other cross-border travel

U.S. Customs and Border Protection agriculture specialists inspect fruit shipments arriving at the Port of Philadelphia
U.S. Customs and Border Protection agriculture specialists
 inspect fruit shipments arriving at the Port of Philadelphia
 April 16.Photo by Glenn Fawcett

That morning cup of joe just wouldn’t be the same without the ground coffee beans from Brazil. And making sure the beans that provide the caffeinated nectar so many people need to start their day keep flowing into the U.S. is the job of U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The lifeline of food imports from other countries – about $14 billion worth every month – is keeping American food stores stocked and consumers satisfied, especially now when concerns over coronavirus make a trip to the local grocery store to replenish life’s necessities the big adventure out of the house for the day.

“Here at the Miami airport, we process 63% of all the perishable commodities coming to the whole nation by air,” as well as nearly half the fish and almost two-thirds of fresh fruits and vegetables by air, said Abel Serrano. He is CBP’s branch chief for agriculture air cargo at the Miami International Airport, in charge of the people who monitor the food shipments that come in by flight. “It’s a pretty busy airport.”

Serrano said they’re making sure the agriculture specialists and CBP officers handling the food imports are also well protected, wearing the gloves, face masks and protective clothing they normally would don, even without a pandemic.

“Our mission’s still the same. We were ready for something like this to happen,” Serrano said, citing previous pandemics, such as the bird flu and African swine fever in the last couple of decades, when CBP first established rigorous pandemic plans. “Every year, we have different situations, but this one is the biggest one. We make sure our inspectors are safe,” ensuring all wear prescribed personal protective equipment – or PPE – in the correct way. “We do PPE certifications every year and wear it every day to avoid any contamination problems.”

A CBP agriculture specialist searches for invasive weeds, seeds and insects in a trailer loaded with fruit shipments arriving at the Port of Philadelphia
A CBP agriculture specialist searches for invasive weeds,
seeds and insects in a trailer loaded with fruit shipments
arriving at the Port of Philadelphia April 16.
Photo by Glenn Fawcett

It’s a scene being repeated at hundreds of ports of entry – land, water and air – across the country: a cadre of CBP officials making sure the food Americans want and need make it into the country and are safe for consumers. In addition, at this time of year when several international and religious holidays have specialty meats and special treats, and the Northern Hemisphere gets an early taste of seasonal fruits such as watermelons it usually has to wait until later in summer to enjoy, keeping these food imports becomes even more important. Further to the north in Philadelphia, which is the nation’s top port for overall fruit imports, CBP officers sort through the thousands of pieces of fruit that come through every day for any pests or diseases that could affect the health of Americans and the U.S. agriculture economy.

“The operations here are vitally important to getting food, agriculture products and [other important supplies] to one of the most densely populated areas of the country,” said Joseph Martella, director for the Port of Philadelphia. “CBP keeps these supplies moving safely and securely, helping all of us during this unprecedented health crisis.”

Across the country in the desert of Arizona, Tucson Director of Field Operations Guadalupe Ramirez said land ports of entry along the southern and northern borders also play a critical role in keeping food shipments rolling in, while continuing to be the frontline of defense for the country.

“The supply chain ensures much-needed food, medicine and medical equipment reaches Americans throughout our nation,” despite severe restrictions on cross-border travel, he said. “We’ll continue to process this merchandise while ensuring our nation’s economic and national security.”

Serving as a conduit to make sure food shipments continue to come in to restock the grocery stores across the nation and keep fresh, seasonal foods in the hands of grocers, restauranteurs and marketers is CBP’s Agriculture and Prepared Products Center of Excellence and Expertise managed out of Miami. The center director is Dina Amato, who says the COVID-19 pandemic really hasn’t changed anything for food imports.

“For us, our work has continued,” Amato said. “We are open and working closely with the CBP officers and agriculture specialists, and we remain a bridge between the center, the trade community and the ports. We continue to work and serve the public. It’s the same for us.”

For example, a recent issue for an importer in San Francisco was holding up a shipment, costing the importer money and keeping the commodity off the shelves. Amato’s staff was able to work with the local port and helped streamline the import process in that case, helping the importer save money during a time when financial bottom lines are being tested, while also getting the product into consumers’ hands.

“Under COVID, cost is important,” Amato said, adding that enforcement of safety and trade rules is still a priority for the agency. “CBP has a dual mission, whether there’s COVID-19 or not: facilitate legitimate cargo and enforce trade laws for CBP and other agencies (such as the Food and Drug Administration or U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service). That’s not going to stop because there’s COVID.  We have to balance it, be smart about it, and still protect this country. The facilitation of the legitimate goods is good for the economy as well. It kind of captures what CBP does best.”

Pallets loaded with thousands of pineapples await distribution to the retail markets in a warehouse at the Port of Wilmington, Delaware.
Pallets loaded with thousands of pineapples await
distribution to the retail markets in a warehouse at the
Port of Wilmington, Delaware, April 16. CBP agriculture
specialists inspect fruit shipments arriving prior to being
 sent to retail markets. Photo by Glenn Fawcett

Another key aspect for the center is making sure all food importers are on a level trading field. One recent example included a misclassification of tuna coming from Spain, which has tariffs much higher than how it was labeled as “bonito,” a different type of fish. Tuna in oil from Spain and the rest of the world pays a duty of about 35%, where bonito in oil has only about a 4% tariff. 

“So we want to make sure the importers of the tuna from Spain are paying the same duty rates,” said David Shaw, a supervisory import specialist with the Agriculture and Prepared Products Center of Excellence and Expertise who works out of Los Angeles. “Our importers cannot compete when you have that kind of disparity. Our goal is to create that level playing field,” working closely with CBP lab analysts who confirm species of plants and animals.

Since the center has specialists in every corner of the country, watching food shipments that come in to the northern and southern borders and ports and airports along the east and west coasts, it is uniquely positioned to give a 30,000-foot perspective to CBP food imports as a whole. It gets plenty of help from people on the ground across all of CBP.

“We need the officers who set up the exams. We need the labs to do the analyses. We need our import specialists to use their expertise to know what samples to pull, and we have the classification expertise as well,” Shaw said.

“The center is open and committed to the flow of legitimate food products, while still enforcing [the laws] where we have to,” Amato said. “The food is flowing because the people need it, and we’re committed to enforcing the law and ensuring legitimate cargo gets through, whether there’s a pandemic or not. It should be seamless for trade. Yes, it’s a little more challenging right now, but CBP is experienced and nimble. We make it work every single day, no matter what comes our way.”

Back at the Miami airport, Serrano’s team continue to examine closely every piece of food flown in – whether it’s seasonal berries from South America or fresh fish from the Mediterranean – to ensure a safe and plentiful supply when consumers make it to their favorite store or carry-out place.

“We operate 24/7,” he said. “There is a constant influx of shipments that we need to make sure are clean, safe and they can go out to the markets, so people can enjoy them, especially in this time of emergency.”

Last modified: 
February 3, 2021