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What You Need to Know to Import Fruits and Vegetables

August 7, 2019
Julia Hecht
In order to import fruits and vegetables into the U.S., you will need to ensure that your import is compliant with both FDA and USDA regulations. You will also need an APHIS Plant Permit, phytosanitary certification, customs bond, Bill of Lading, and a number of other documents. 

If you want to import fruits and vegetables, then you’re probably already aware of the huge profits waiting to be made. American consumers demand that all of their favorite fruits and vegetables be available all year long, so importers need to make up the difference when that produce is out of season in the U.S. In fact, as of 2016, 53% of fruits and 31% of vegetables consumed in the U.S. were imported from other countries!

In order to import fruits and vegetables into the U.S., you will need to ensure that your import is compliant with both FDA and USDA regulations. You will also need an APHIS Plant Permit, phytosanitary certification, customs bond, Bill of Lading, and a number of other documents. 

how to import into the usaHow to Import into the USA 

Importing anything into the USA is hardly a simple process. There are countless documents and regulations that you need to be in compliance with, in order to even get your shipment through customs. There’s so much you need to worry about, even before you can start thinking about the more specific regulations for your particular commodity. To make it easier for you, here are some of the most basic import requirements necessary for almost every single shipment. 

Commercial Invoice

A commercial invoice is so much more than just a way for the supplier to get paid by the importer. It serves as a receipt of the transaction and contains all the costs and fees associated with the shipment. Importers must keep a copy of the commercial import to show customs as evidence of the weight and value of the import, so it can be taxed appropriately. It also contains the names and addresses of both the importer and the supplier and information about the country of origin that may assist customs with inspections. 

Bill of Lading

The Bill of Lading (BOL) is a tremendously important document, and without it, there is absolutely no way customs would even look at your import. If you want to import anything at all, you’re going to need a BOL. It contains a lot of important information all in one place, like contact information for all applicable parties, billing information, and special instructions. 

The BOL has many uses for both the importer and the CBP. It is a record of the responsible parties, which can be useful for insurance purposes if something goes wrong with the shipment. It also gives specific instructions for how, when, and where the shipment should be delivered, making the process as quick and easy as possible. Finally, it is proof of the contract established between the shipper and consignee, in case someone refuses to comply with the outlined agreement.

Customs Bond

Another important document that you’ll need is what’s known as a Customs Bond. It is issued by a third party surety company to the importer on record and serves as a sort of insurance for the CBP. The customs bond instructions ensures that the CBP will get paid for all duties, taxes, and fees since the surety company will pay if the importer goes bankrupt mid-shipment. 

Most of the time, a customs bond is only required if your shipment is valued at $2,500 or more, but that is not the case for fruits and vegetables. In order to import any food items, including fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables, you will need a customs bond, even if your shipment is valued at less than $2,500. 

So now you know that you need a customs bond, but what type of customs bond is right for you? There are two main options when selecting a customs bond type: single entry bonds, and continuous bonds.

  1. Single entry bonds are pretty self-explanatory. They are customs bonds that can be used for only one entry into the U.S., through a specific port of entry that is determined before the bond is issued. For food products, a single entry bond will need to cover three times the value of the shipment itself. 
  2. Continuous bonds don’t have a limit to how many shipments they can cover. Instead, they ensure every single shipment you make over the course of one year, and they are not restricted to a specific port of entry. It must cover $50,000 no matter what, and although that might sound like a lot, it ends up being a lot cheaper than single entry bonds if you tend to import a lot. If you make multiple shipments a year, then a continuous bond would be the best option for you.

Entry and Release Forms

The next step in the process is to electronically file the CBP Form 3461, known as the customs release form. This should be submitted before your import reaches the port of entry, to allow the customs agents to prepare to receive your shipment. This helps them know what to expect when to expect it, and what to do with it once it arrives.

Once the customs release form has been submitted, then you will only have ten days to file the CBP Form 7501, which is known as the customs entry form. It is a longer document that covers more of the specifics of your import, to help the CBP calculate the final duties and taxes that will be applied to your shipment after inspections. 

Arrival Notice

After the shipment has arrived safely at the port and cleared all customs requirements, then the consignee must arrange for it to be picked up. In order to notify the consignee that the shipment has reached this stage, the shipper will issue a Notice of Arrival, otherwise known as an Arrival Notice. This document contains lots of good information for the consignee about any additional fees that were incurred, what inspections were done, and what special pick-up instructions the shipment might have.

An Arrival Notice is important for many reasons, but the main purpose of it is to get the shipment out of the way to make room for new shipments as fast as possible. By keeping the flow of shipments moving through customs consistent and predictable, the entire operation can continue to run smoothly.

USDA Regulations for Importing Fruits and VegetablesUSDA Regulations for Importing Fruits and Vegetables

When your import involves other regulatory agencies besides CBP, trying to manage all the additional documentation can be a real headache. Fruits and vegetable imports fall under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). To get even more specific, the APHIS National Plant Protection Organization (NPPO) deals specifically with importing plants like fruits and vegetables, but the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) also plays a part in enforcing import regulations. 

That’s a lot of different acronyms just for one type of import. If you’re starting to get overwhelmed, slow down and take a deep breath. It sounds like a lot, but the regulations aren’t that difficult to understand once you break them down. 

Phytosanitary Certificate

The first thing you’re going to need to worry about is making sure your import is even safe to import. In order to be accepted into a U.S. port of entry, your import of fruits and vegetables will need to be accompanied by an officially issued phytosanitary certification from its country of origin. This document is issued by the exporter of your goods and will inform APHIS that the foreign agency inspected and possibly treated the shipment before it was exported. It serves as evidence that all the appropriate steps were taken to ensure compliance with U.S. regulations.

In addition to certifying the phytosanitary requirements of the shipment, it also provides the scientific names of the individual plants, which can be a handy reference for filling out other documents, like the Plant Permit.

Plant Permit

Most fruit and vegetable imports, whether fresh or frozen, will require a permit issued by NPPO’s Plant Protection Quarantine (PPQ) program. The program is part of the USDA APHIS efforts to prevent contamination of the U.S. agricultural supply. In order to be granted a permit to import, you will need to fill out the PPQ Form 587. Make sure you follow the instructions at the end carefully, or else your request may be rejected. 

When you apply for a permit, be prepared to provide specific information like:

  • Your street address
  • Your company’s name
  • Your business address
  • Your phone number
  • Your email address
  • The Latin/scientific names of the fruits or vegetables you want to import
  • The country or countries you are importing from
  • The plant part type
  • The U.S. city you want the import to arrive in
  • The means of importation
  • The date
  • The name and signature of the importer

If you are not granted an import permit for your shipment, there may be something wrong with the way you filled out the form. In that case, you could use a customs broker to get through the paperwork correctly. If your import is not permitted for some reason or another, you should reach out to the USDA for advice on what steps to take from there. 

Fruits and Vegetables Import Requirements FAVIR Database

To make the process more frustrating, each individual type of fruit or vegetable has different regulations that apply to them based on their susceptibility to pests, their country of origin, and other risk factors. Some specific fruits and vegetables can only come through certain ports of entry, while others can come through any port that’s convenient. Some produce is even exempt from needing a plant import permit! Even worse, the regulations for produce are always changing based on the time of year, the presence or discovery of different pests, and various trade rules with other countries.

However, there is a solution to the madness.

In order to combat the confusion associated with trying to import a specific fruit or vegetable, APHIS has launched a database with entries for each type of produce, and where it could possibly be shipping from. It is called the Fruits and Vegetables Import Requirements (FAVIR) Database. It is constantly updating with the most current information, so you can import confidently no matter what you’re shipping.

One of the most helpful lists in the database is the All Countries List, which is a list of fruits and vegetables that are preapproved for import into the United States from any country. That means that anything on that list can be safely imported without an APHIS import permit. In addition to that, the database can send out emergency notifications to users about changes to commodity or country requirements. 

The FAVIR Database is just as useful to customs as it is for importers, since it also provides CBP agents with an easy-to-reference guide about which fruits or vegetables are permitted into the country and which are prohibited. 

FDA Regulations for Importing Fruits and VegetablesFDA Regulations for Importing Fruits and Vegetables

The Food and Drug Administration is the next regulatory body involved in the process of importing fruits and vegetables into the United States. It creates the specifications alongside the CBP and the USDA to ensure all fruit and vegetable imports are properly monitored, inspected, and regulated, and that they meet all safety and sanitary requirements. 

The FDA also works with the USDA to ensure that imported fruits and vegetables are not held to a higher standard than domestic products, to encourage continued trade with other countries. 

Prior Notice

Prior notice is part of the process of preventing contamination in the food supply from agricultural pests, diseases, and bioterrorism. The importer needs to submit it to the FDA no more than 15 days before the shipment of fruits or vegetables is expected to reach the U.S. port of entry. This prior notice requirement also applies to all food items being imported into the United States, and it ensures that the FDA and CBP have the appropriate amount of time to prepare for the incoming shipment. 

This document should contain information like the country of origin for the import, the registration numbers of any facilities involved with its packing and handling, and the names of any country to which the import is refused entry. This is to help the CBP make the most informed decisions about the risk factors associated with your import. 

To submit this document, you could go through one of two online portals. The CBP Automated Broker Interface can allow importers to take advantage of the existing connection between the CBP and FDA, making it easy to submit alongside other documents. This can help to keep everything organized and in the same place. Or, you could choose to submit through the Prior Notice System Interface (PNSI) if you wish to submit more directly to the FDA, instead of going through the CBP portal. 

The FDA would prefer to receive online documents, but faxing or delivering the documents to the Division of Dockets Management is also an option.

Registration of Food Facilities

In 2002, the FDA began requiring that all food facilities register with them in accordance with the policies of the Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act. “Food facilities” include any facility that had anything to do with the manufacturing, processing, packing, storage, or other handling of food products. Farms are the only type of food facility that does not need to register with the FDA.

In order to register a food facility, individuals or companies can submit extra documentation through the FDA Industry System (FIS), which allows them to file everything online. In order to complete the registration, facilities must allow the FDA to make regular inspections of the food facility in order to ensure it is still compliant with food safety regulations. If the FDA determines the facility to be in violation of those regulations at any time, they can revoke the registration. These FDA food facility registrations must be renewed every other year. 

The registration number of all registered food facilities involved with your import of fruits and vegetables must go on the BOL.

labeling requirements for fruits and vegetablesLabeling Requirements for Fruits and Vegetables

Although you wouldn’t know by looking at them, a lot of thought goes into the labels on fruits and vegetables. Both bulk shipments and retail packaged produce must follow specific labeling requirements in order to be compliant with FDA regulations. Even the little stickers on bananas and other produce are regulated by the FDA to ensure that they are composed of materials that have been approved for food contact. 

Although the way fruits and vegetables are shipped can affect the way that the shipment is regulated, some regulations apply to all fruits and vegetables regardless of the manner in which they are packaged. For one thing, all imported produce must have a label stating the country of origin clearly, regardless of whether the produce is bagged, boxed, or sold individually. 

If you want to import organic fruits or vegetables, then you’ll need to know the rules associated with organic labels. Any product that makes a claim about being organic must be accompanied by the USDA Organic Seal to prove it. It must also contain a statement to verify that the seal is genuine, by naming the certifying agent that determined the product to be organic.

Labeling for Shipping Containers Containing Fruits and Vegetables

In order to import fruits and vegetables, all shipping containers need to be specifically labeled to meet CBP expectations. There are many things that need to be labeled on the outside of the shipping container, to let CBP officers quickly identify the shipment, and easily determine the contents within it for taxing and inspection purposes.

The label must contain several pieces of information, including:

  • The name and address of the shipper
  • The name of the product
  • A net content statement (in traditional terms, like bushels, quantity, or weight)
  • The full chemical names of all pesticides and their purposes
  • The full chemical names of all post-harvest food additives and their purposes (including waxes, resins, and other similar materials)

All wholesale containers must contain labels like this, with a master list on the outside of the shipping container. But remember, this only applies to bulk, wholesale shipments. If your import of fruits and vegetables is already prepackaged for retail sale, you’re going to need to follow another set of instructions for ensuring your retail labels are compliant. 

Labeling for Retail Packages of Fruits and Vegetables

You might be importing produce that has already been prepackaged for retail use, in which case you will need to pay special attention to the way that the retail containers are labeled. However, the outside of the shipping container should still have the same information specified above; the use of individual labels does not change the fact that the shipping container must be labeled from the outside as well. 

Individual labels on retail containers, like clamshell packaging or mesh bags, must contain at least the following information:

  • The name of the product
  • The name and address of the packer or distributor
  • The net weight
  • An ingredient statement (which includes post-harvest food additives)

In addition to those requirements, packers can choose to include a nutrition facts label as well, though it is not required. However, if they do choose to include one, it must be factual and compliant with the FDA’s Nutrition Labeling Requirements.

Since the use of any and all pesticides should be listed on the outside of the shipping container, it does not need to be on the individual retail labels. However, if for some reason that information is omitted from the shipping container label, like if the shipment doesn’t fill up an entire shipping container, then it must be on the retail label to compensate.

inspections for imports of fruits and vegetablesInspections for Imports of Fruits and Vegetables

All shipments of fruits and vegetables coming into the United States will need to be inspected before being allowed out of the port of entry, in an effort to prevent the spread of foreign pests that could harm the ecosystem or agricultural supply in the U.S. Other threats, such as disease, fungi, and contaminants must also be prevented from passing through the port of entry to protect the health of American consumers. 

The USDA APHIS Agricultural Quarantine Inspection Program is responsible for risk assessment testing. It is also responsible for determining the protocols that apply to each agricultural commodity based on the statistical information gathered from previous shipments. Even shipments of frozen or processed fruits and vegetables must be inspected in this way to ensure that all health and safety standards are followed appropriately. 

Unfortunately, the importer is responsible for paying the labor costs for these inspection services, and depending on the type of commodity, the size of the shipment, and if it is found to be contaminated, those costs could vary dramatically. In addition to that, APHIS is not responsible for any damages that occur to the commodities as a result of inspection or treatment.

National Agriculture Release Program

The National Agriculture Release Program (NARP) was designed by CBP in order to speed up the process of importing for high-volume, low-risk shipments of fruits and vegetables. Only fruits and vegetables that are on the list of NARP approved produce are eligible for this type of expedited release. In addition, the shipment must contain only NARP approved produce, and cannot be shipped with produce that is not approved.

Because the commodities on that list are statistically unlikely to contain harmful contaminants, they can be accelerated through the customs process to save time. However, an occasional randomly selected consignment will be inspected. CBP agents will remove a statistically appropriate number of boxes from a shipment to inspect, to ensure the commodity’s continued status as a low-risk import. 

Risk-Based Sampling 

Based on the risk factors associated with your specific import of fruits and vegetables, customs will determine what sample size is statistically appropriate to test from your shipment. High-risk commodities will require larger sample sizes, while low-risk ones require rather small sample sizes. However, the size and weight of the shipment will also help determine the size of the sample that will be tested. This is one of the ways that CBP agents organize their time to give high-risk commodities more attention during the inspection process. 

Plant Inspection Stations

When attempting to import fruits and vegetables into the U.S., you may have noticed that some types of produce have to come through specific ports of entry. This is because the U.S. only has 16 plant inspection stations where the produce could be examined, so that restricts where the shipments can get delivered to. In order to ensure the timely transportation and inspection of the fruits and vegetables, the port of entry selected for import must be close to the appropriate plant inspection station. 

Plant inspection stations can be found in these states:

  • Arizona
  • California
  • Florida
  • Georgia
  • Guam
  • Hawaii
  • Maryland
  • New Jersey
  • New York
  • Puerto Rico
  • Texas
  • Washington

What if my import does not clear customsWhat if my Import Does Not Clear Customs?

If a customs hold is placed on your shipment of fruits or vegetables, you should do everything in your power to ensure that it gets cleared up as soon as possible. When dealing with perishable foods, especially those that are organic, even a delay of a single day can wreak havoc on your potential profits. To make this more frustrating, produce is sometimes subject to reinspection after it arrives at the port, even if it has already passed inspections in its country of origin!

If your import is determined to be in violation of the CBP regulations, then one of several things could happen as a result. Depending on the nature of the violation, the CBP may choose to have the shipment:

  • Cleaned
  • Disinfected
  • Fumigated 
  • Recalled
  • Reexported
  • Completely destroyed
  • Or otherwise dealt with

It is important to make sure that all regulations are followed closely, and if you do not understand how to bring your shipment to compliance, you can always enlist the help of a customs broker to help you through the process and make sure you aren’t missing anything important.

top fruit and vegetable importsTop Fruit and Vegetable Imports

Foreign fruits are exploding in popularity, but the most popular fruits are still the ones that are grown primarily in the U.S. Imports are used to supplement the market so specific fruits and vegetables are available year-round, but then they don’t get imported when they are in season in the U.S. 

Take a look at some of the top imports of fresh fruits and vegetables, to get a better idea of which imports are the most profitable:

  • Bananas
  • Tomatoes
  • Pineapples
  • Peppers
  • Cucumbers
  • Melons
  • Grapes
  • Avocados
  • Watermelons
  • Lemons
  • Onions
  • Mangoes
  • Potatoes
  • Pumpkins & Squash
  • Cabbages
  • Asparagus
  • Apples
  • Carrots

Notice that there aren’t any exotic fruits and vegetables on the list, like dragonfruit or guava. Although there is a growing market for those in the U.S., they cannot compete with America’s love for familiar fruits and vegetables.

Top Exporters of Fruits and Vegetables

Fresh fruits and vegetables can come from nearly any place in the world, but there are a few countries that dominate the market of exporting produce to the U.S. For example, Canada and Mexico supply over 90% of the imported vegetables that come into the U.S. 

Imported fruits are a little more varied in their countries of origin. Mexico supplies 26%, Guatemala supplies 19%, and Costa Rica supplies 17%. Other fresh fruit suppliers include Ecuador, Chile, Honduras, and Colombia. 

If you’re looking for ideas to import fruits and vegetables, then start by looking for suppliers in those places first.

Do i need a customs brokerDo I Need a Customs Broker?

Although you don’t strictly need a customs broker to import fruits and vegetables, there are a lot of things that could go wrong. When a delay can cost you the entire shipment, it can be pretty intimidating to try to tackle all the regulations and import documents by yourself. It can cause you a lot of undue stress, and cost you valuable time that you could spend in some other aspect of your business. 

If you want to make the most of your time and not get bogged down with customs clearance, then you should employ a customs broker to handle everything on your behalf. 

If you have any additional questions about how to import fruits and vegetables, feel free to contact us. Or, if you need more guidance, you could schedule an in-depth consulting session with one of our import professionals.

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