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Customs Delays Are Eating at Food Importers' Bottom Line

Small-business owners specializing in Middle Eastern and South Asian goods say they're singled out for lengthy inspections.

April 23, 2003|Melinda Fulmer | Times Staff Writer

Anas Shah's business has become a waiting game.

Every day for the last eight weeks, the food importer has walked past the same towers of boxes in his Gardena warehouse, waiting for the government clearance that will allow him to sell the spices he shipped in from India and that are costing him thousands of dollars more than he budgeted.

After undergoing two sets of inspections by the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection, the spices finally were ready recently for review by the Food and Drug Administration. An FDA inspector arrived to tear open boxes of cumin seed and coriander powder, take samples to test for contaminants or agents of bioterrorism and mark each box with a number and date in felt-tip pen.

Now Shah might have to wait a month to get the test results. Only then will he be permitted to move the spices out of his warehouse, which is bulging with pappadum, pickled onions and bags of Pakistani rice.

"We're a small business, and this is costing us a lot of time and money," said Shah, whose Shah Distributors had $5 million in sales last year. "I don't know how long we can go on like this."

Many food importers have had incoming shipments submitted to time-consuming inspections since the federal government beefed up port security as part of the war against terrorism. Small-business owners specializing in Middle Eastern and South Asian goods say they have felt the effects more than others. Edible items from those parts of the world make up a fraction of the contents in the estimated 300,000 food-laden containers that come into Southern California ports each year, but according to several importers, those items get the most attention from inspectors.

"They are getting so tough on us," said Hani Teebi, who owns Canary Trading Co. in Anaheim, an importer of spices and other products from Pakistan and several Middle Eastern countries, including Jordan, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia.

Government officials say they don't single out imports from any particular region. "Our examinations are based on the information we get, where a shipment is coming from, where it's going, what it is and who was involved in the process," said Jim Purser, assistant port director for the Customs Service.

But there's no question that food from foreign countries is getting more attention. With additional field agents hired after Congress boosted funding, Customs has tripled the number of inspections it conducts at the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles. The FDA also has greatly increased the number of containers it reviews.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that businesses importing food from parts of the world other than the Middle East or South Asia aren't enduring the same level of scrutiny. "Things are pretty much the same" as before, said Terry Bezjian of Indo-European Foods in Glendale, which buys most of its products from Europe.

When inspectors decide to examine a shipping container, the importer pays a price. Shah, a Pakistani immigrant, says his costs for the load of spices from India would not long ago have totaled $70,000, for the spices themselves plus shipping, storage and other charges.

He estimates that the inspection process has added $5,000 in warehousing costs. The delay also has pushed back deliveries to his network of 150 small food markets by as much as a month. And with food piling up in his warehouse in Gardena, he doesn't feel comfortable placing big orders for future delivery: There isn't enough storage space.

Shah says he fully understands why the government has heightened import inspections. "I don't blame them," he said. But he wonders why inspectors choose to devote so much time on seemingly secure loads from the "big, established companies" in India and Pakistan from which he buys his spices and other goods. And he wonders why just one agency couldn't conduct a single examination and let the others know the results.

Customs officials say they are working on proposals to speed up the process and hope to develop what they call "a common decision-making mechanism" for all the agencies. But they caution that nothing is likely to change for another year or two.

So Shah is telling customers that getting their orders from his warehouse to their store shelves will take 75 days instead of the usual 40 to 45 days.

Retailers who buy his goods worry that they will be left short, as they were during the labor disruptions at the ports last year and after the Sept. 11 attacks.

With sales down 30% this year at the Sinbad Market in Anaheim's Little Arabia, owner Abdo Khouraki said he couldn't afford bare shelves.

"I know they are just trying to protect the consumer," Khouraki said. "But 99% of our products are imported." If the food he has ordered doesn't arrive soon, "we will have serious problems."

Teebi at Canary Trading figures there is one bright spot: If he can survive a few rounds of intense inspections, the government will learn that what he imports is safe and eventually will let him off the hook

"It's hard for us, but in the long run it will be good for us," he said.

"We want to be in this business a long time."

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