Budget cuts bring longer wait times to U.S. produce imports

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Budget cuts bring longer wait times to U.S. produce imports

United States importers are already feeling the effects of the Mar. 1 budget sequester that is threatening to reduce Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents by several thousands. shutterstock_67033939 _ panorama

J-C Distributing president Jaime Chamberlain explained that although understaffing at the border is nothing new, the most recent cuts have dealt another blow to the Nogales, Arizona point of entry where his business operates.

"I have eight commercial lanes that should be open. Four are open now, if I’m lucky. That’s this week. Maybe next week because of overtime issues, only three lanes will be open," he told www.freshfruitportal.com.

The automatic government spending cuts will mean increased wait times and reduced hours of service across all points of entry, especially during the peak summer season. Immediate cuts were already made to employee overtime hours, and personnel furloughs are anticipated for mid-April.

Although Chamberlain has not yet experienced product damage, he said longer lines sacrifice time that fruit and vegetable importers simply do not have to waste.

"The importance for us as a perishable importer is just so much more highlighted because you cannot have wait times that are four and five hours when you have a perishable product," he said.

"If you don’t want to see U.S. food prices double or triple, then our ports of entry - whether they’re processing Clementines in Delaware or grapes out of Philadelphia or tomatoes in Nogales - they had better have that staffing ready because we will see big, big increases in food prices."

Roberto Maldonado of Plain Jane Produce said that his company has been in a distribution lull as the budget sequester takes effect, but he anticipated trouble for the Arizona-based business.

"We heard complaints from other people about the changes that are being made and we will probably have problems in the future," he said.

"For years we have been pushing to have enough people at the line to expedite the dispatch. We had pretty good luck in the last few years but now that they made a cut, we’re going to feel it."

The general manager feared losing orders and possibly business due to border understaffing.

"Robs a day of shelf life"

Robert Bennen Jr. of  Ta-De Distributing recognized the same possibility for his business at the Arizona port, a main entry point for winter produce into the U.S.

"We won’t be able to move from Mexico as efficiently. The product might get held up at the border. It robs a day of shelf life. That’s what happens if you can’t get it passed the border the days it arrives," Bennen said.

The reality of further sacrifices to come have been kept no secret. Although CBP hopes to minimize the impact of lower funding, the agency recognizes that it simply will not be able to operate as before.

“Under sequestration, U.S. Customs & Border Protection will not be able to maintain its required staffing levels at our ports of entry. CBP reduced overtime this weekend at ports of entry around the country and effects are already visible. Lanes that would have previously been open due to overtime staffing were closed, further exacerbating wait times at airports with typically longer international arrival processes. In the coming weeks, we will see additional impacts as the CBP hiring freeze and furloughs take place,” a customs spokeswoman told the Orlando Business Journal.

As a businessman, Chamberlain said he is furious to see such a blow to U.S. commerce.

"We just don’t have enough bodies. For homeland security to be cut the way it is is an embarrassment because you cannot run a country. It’s like me running my distributorship here with seven million boxes to sell and having one salesman to do all of that. It’s physically impossible," he said.

"I don’t know what we can expect in the near future. All I can say is that CBP is doing an outstanding job with what it has. And it’s unfortunate. You’re putting the American public at risk."



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