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New Cargo Security Plan Irks Importers

WASHINGTON — Following last year’s terrorist attacks, retailers and importers of apparel and textiles have rallied behind a U.S. Customs Service effort to keep weapons or biohazardous material from being smuggled in the 6 million cargo...

WASHINGTON — Following last year’s terrorist attacks, retailers and importers of apparel and textiles have rallied behind a U.S. Customs Service effort to keep weapons or biohazardous material from being smuggled in the 6 million cargo containers ferried to U.S. ports each year.

However, a recent Customs directive is now causing strain between importers and agency officials. At issue is a proposal requiring ocean carriers to have containers sealed and accompanied by a detailed list of cargo 24 hours before being loaded onto a U.S.-bound vessel.

The regulation, part of Customs Commissioner David Bonner’s global plan to prescreen all cargo before departure, seems practical. The agency is already moving to put inspectors at the 20 largest foreign ports within the year and to expand the Container Security Initiative later.

“In order for CSI to work most effectively, there must be good targeting — the ability to identify high-risk containers,” Bonner said this month in a speech updating Customs cargo security progress. “And good targeting depends on complete, accurate and timely information about containers being shipped: what is in it, who is shipping the goods, where it originated and so on.”

But importers of textiles and apparel claim Bonner’s 24-hour deadline and request to provide precise details about products being shipped aren’t practical. They are also concerned that the agency is rushing the new rule, which could go into effect in a month after first being proposed Aug. 8.

Jonathan Gold, director of trade policy at the International Mass Retail Association, said the 24-hour rule has several problems. He said owners of cargo, usually the importer, should be the ones to provide detailed, private information about container contents, not ocean carriers. Manifests are public documents and should contain generic cargo descriptions like “apparel,” and not, “Levi’s jeans,” in order to avoid the problem of container theft at the point of embarkation, Gold said.

Gold also said the 24-hour deadline for having a container ready to be shipped at a port is too stringent. In order to meet the deadline, foreign ports are likely to require containers to be filled and in shipping yards days before a carrier sails.

Congestion at ports would also increase and delivery delays could have a ripple effect in the U.S. economy, he said. Customs could still make changes to its proposal. It has received many comments from importers raising questions about the 24-hour deadline.

Further muddying the outcome is how the agency will reconcile its proposal with a congressional mandate to create a government-industry task force “to establish standards and a process for screening and evaluating cargo prior to import into or export from the United States.” The requirement was contained in a trade bill passed earlier this summer.

“The trade act envisions a consultation process,” said Steve Lamar, vice president of the American Apparel & Footwear Association. Lamar said the 24-hour proposal “opens a lot of technical and logistics questions.”

Brenda Jacobs, counsel for the U.S. Association of Importers of Textiles & Apparel, said Customs’ 24-hour proposal seems to preempt Congress’ cargo security plans.

“We would like to have a more considered, deliberate, comprehensive approach anticipated by the Congress,” Jacobs said.