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Plant Protection Today - Reducing the Pest Risk of Sea Containers

Reducing the Pest Risk of Sea Containers
May 27, 2020

PPQ Helps Advance the North American Sea Container Initiative

By Greg Rosenthal

Invasive pests don’t just hitchhike around the globe in or on agricultural commodities. They can also infest the millions of sea containers that crisscross our oceans and continents each year on ships, trains, and truck beds. In fact, about 12.5 million sea containers enter the United States annually. Inside, all life stages of invasive insects, mites, snails, and slugs could be ready to infest a new location. Outside, container walls could be contaminated with insect egg masses, bird droppings, and soil containing weed seeds and disease-causing microbes.

Not only can invasive pests damage farms and ecosystems, they can also harm trade. When agriculture inspectors find a contaminated sea container in port, it can cost the cargo owner, importer, or shipper time and money. Contamination can lead to cargo-release delays; storage charges for held cargo; and treatment, cleaning, or re-exportation expenses, among others. The good news is that clean containers speed port-of-entry inspections and help avoid these costs.

North American Collaboration

When New Zealand proposed an International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC) standard to reduce the plant-health risk posed by sea containers, the proposal soon stalled due to concerns from various national governments and the international shipping industry. The IPPC is an international plant health agreement with 184 participating countries, including the United States. The agreement aims to protect the world’s plant resources from the introduction and spread of pests, and to promote safe trade. 

USDA’s Plant Protection and Quarantine (PPQ) program has been championing an effort to find another way to help accomplish that same goal: the North American Sea Container Initiative (NASCI). This effort tackles the problem at the regional level as a first step toward a global solution, and it is a priority project for the North American Plant Protection Organization (NAPPO). NAPPO is a collaboration among the United States, Canada, and Mexico that promotes and secures cooperation to protect plant health in the NAPPO region. The three countries pool their scientific, technical, and financial resources to exclude pests from their countries. 

“The United States and Canada have really stepped up to find an effective approach that’s acceptable to all parties,” said Field Operations Director Wendy Beltz, PPQ’s lead on the initiative. “Working closely with North American industry groups, we’re developing a joint, collaborative, and voluntary program for reducing the pest risks from this sea container pathway.” 

On the government side, the initiative includes PPQ, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the U.S. Coast Guard, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, and Transport Canada. Industry members include the World Shipping Council, Global Shippers Forum, International Cargo Handling Coordination Association, Institute of International Container Lessors, Freight Management Association of Canada, National Industrial Transportation League, and Agriculture Transportation Coalition. NAPPO is an active participant, and through the organization PPQ plans to engage our Mexican counterparts and expand the initiative to other regions. 

“Partnering with industry and other government agencies associated with the shipping industry is vital to mitigating the risk of this pathway,” said Beltz.

Steady Progress

NASCI has made mighty strides since its kickoff meeting in 2017, including:

  • Developing critical relationships over several years among government regulators, the shipping industries, and groups across the container supply chain, allowing them to create a voluntary set of guidelines that leverage industry practices to achieve plant health goals
  • Publishing a NASCI web page on NAPPO’s website, which hosts the initiative’s communication materials; NAPPO translated the content into Spanish
  • Creating—in conjunction with PPQ’s Professional Development Center—a “how-to” video on sea container cleanliness; it’s available for both industry and government to use during training
  • Continuing discussions with International Maritime Organization to integrate the initiative’s guidance into its Code of Practice for Packing of Cargo Transport Units
  • Making progress on developing survey guidelines—led by PPQ’s Science and Technology division—that will help collect data on sea container contamination

“We know that sea container contamination poses a significant plant pest risk, but we need to quantify that risk precisely,” said Quantitative Risk Analyst Ernie Hain. “PPQ’s Plant Epidemiology and Risk Analysis Laboratory is defining the data elements that sea container surveys must include to establish a solid baseline of pest risk. Only then can we assess the effectiveness of cleaning and disinfecting protocols. Fortunately, our colleagues in Australia and New Zealand have developed survey data guidelines, and they form the foundation of our work.” 

At the 11th annual meeting of the International Plant Protection Convention’s Commission on Phytosanitary Measures in 2016, Field Operations Director Wendy Beltz helped participants understand the complexity of regulating sea containers and advanced a practical solution to address known risks.

Global Collaboration

More globally, NASCI representatives are working through the IPPC Sea Container Task Force to help develop a global solution that builds on the North American approach. In addition, PPQ formed a sea container working group with our Quadrilateral partners in Canada, New Zealand, and Australia. We think this group could be pivotal in helping to bring together ideas from the various efforts and develop a conceptual framework for managing the sea container pathway that will be practical, effective, and most of all, feasible at the global level. Such a framework would position us to influence the development of an international standard for sea containers in 2021.

From Global Back to Local

While NASCI members have global aspirations, their first step is to coordinate sea container surveys at the local level. Beltz assembled a Sea Container Working Group that will equip PPQ State Plant Health Directors to conduct industry outreach and lay the foundation for actual sea container contamination surveys at U.S. ports.

“Our State Plant Health Directors will be our champions in their States,” Beltz said. “They are best positioned to provide outreach and education to the local brokers and freight forwarders. For every global initiative, the rubber meets the road locally. And PPQ has the local expertise to make it a success.”


The United Nations declared 2020 as the International Year of Plant Health(IYPH) and then extended the celebration through July1, 2021. This worldwide campaign is promoting the value of our precious plant resources and the need to safeguard them against invasive pests. To celebrate IYPH, each month Plant Protection Today is highlighting how PPQ safeguards America’s agricultural and natural resources against invasive pests, and facilitates the safe trade of agricultural products. Read our article on IYPH to learn more—and how you can join this once-in-a-lifetime event!

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