About 40 percent of all fruits and vegetables consumed in the United States come from Mexico. Nearly half of those shipments pass through Texas ports of entry, according to the Texas International Produce Association.
That figure is expected to increase dramatically in the next year as Mexico nears completion of key infrastructure improvements that will create a quicker route from agriculturally rich areas in western Mexico to Texas ports. While federal officials say the ports of entry are adequately staffed, the Texas Border Coalition estimates that the southern border may be up to 4,000 federal inspectors short.
This week, state Rep. Bobby Guerra, D-Mission, is expected to file a bill that would help address the shortage of agricultural specialists who inspect produce coming across the Texas-Mexico border.
Guerra wants to utilize local resources, like the Citrus Center in Weslaco or the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, to train personnel to meet federal inspector guidelines and thereby increase the number of workers able to inspect the produce coming across the border.
Just seven agriculture specialists at the only commercial port of entry in Guerra's Hidalgo County district — the Pharr-Reynosa Bridge — processed 145,000 18-wheelers carrying produce last year, according to the produce association.
The city of McAllen and the Border Trade Alliance asked Guerra to examine what state lawmakers could do to increase the number of specialists.
“A big part of the issue here is the shift in port of entry from Arizona, California to Texas,” said John McClung, the president of the produce association. In the next year and a half, Mexico's new highway system will give producers a direct route to Texas ports of entry, putting the product closer to customers to the east.
With wait times already averaging 54 minutes at South Texas ports of entry and the volume of commercial traffic expected to grow — along with stricter federal guidelines to ensure a safe food supply — the risk of the produce spoiling while sitting in traffic could rise.
The Food Safety Modernization Act, signed into law in 2011, shifts the focus from responding to contamination in the food supply to preventing it.
McClung said that while the industry supports the higher standards, the act is an unfunded mandate.
“There are not now and haven’t for years been sufficient resources to hire the number of inspectors that are needed," McClung said. "The agencies know that. We know it. Everybody knows it."
But U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials say the number of agricultural specialists nationwide has jumped 50 percent, and that the agency now employs 2,400 of those workers.
“Agricultural specialists have extensive training and experience in agricultural and biological inspection,” spokesman Roger Maier said in an email.
Nelson Balido, chairman of the Border Trade Alliance, said one in four jobs in Texas are tied to trade. If the amount of produce coming across the South Texas border increases as anticipated, Balido said, the state economy stands to benefit — if the government is prepared.
"This ag business, this shot in the arm will take business away from Arizona and give it to Texas and we have to be ready to accept it," he said.
U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, has reintroduced the Cross Border Trade Enhancement Act to encourage public-private partnerships to boost staffing and improve infrastructure at U.S. ports of entry.
Guerra hopes his bill further highlights the issue at the state level.
“I’m being both optimistic that we get this passed, but being realistic that we have a lot of players involved,” he said.
McClung agreed, saying it's an issue with “a lot of layers — it’s an onion.”