According to my sources at U.S. Customs and Border Protection, shippers sending product outside the U.S. on wooden pallets, are getting some breathing room for complying with ISPM-15. This is the international regulation governing the use of wood packaging material (WPM) in over-seas shipping. It's designed to reduce transmigration of various insect species that have been deemed detrimental in countries where they are not indigenous.

The widely advertised drop-deadline, September 16, turned out to be more like a shot across the box rather than one to the heart of companies not in compliance. This is the kind of story a columnist really enjoys. It's a story that won't quit. Although it might not be filled with sex and violence, it does have its share of political intrigue and plot twists. And it's about as close to fiction writing as I'm allowed.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service has revised its import regulation for wood packaging material — 7 Code of Federal Regulations 319.

Here's where I say, "I told you so." I'm so prescient. I hope in my next life I come back as a meteorologist. On September 12, four days before ISPM-15 was to go into effect, the CBP issued a statement saying the regulation is taking a bit of a turn. A plot twist. The saga continues. Hollywood would love this. Maybe they'll call and ask me to do the screenplay.

I'll save you the trouble of retrieving the things I've written about this issue in the past three or four years and cut to the chase scene.

Here's the hang-up this time. Someone must have hired a sharp-eyed editor because the phrase, "Effective September 16, 2005, the U.S. regulation allows non-compliant regulated WPM [wood packaging materials] to be re-exported."

The word "re-exporter" hangs up my spell checker. The folks at Customs and Border Protection recognized that the use of the term may be confusing. So, for the purpose of this regulation at least, "reexport" will refer to the immediate export of violative (that term hangs-up my spell checker, as well) WPM and, "where the violative WPM cannot be separated from the accompanying merchandise, the immediate export of the violative WPM and any accompanying merchandise." That clears it up.

And here's the reprieve part. CBP conducted a special operation in July 2005 to determine the baseline level of WPM compliance. Based on its investigation, it has decided to perform a "phased-in" compliance enforcement of the regulation. Phase 1 of this program is called the "informed compliance" period. There will be no stoppage or reexport of shipments not in compliance.

If WPM is present and not marked as having been properly treated, the importer and broker will be informed of non-compliance and given further information. Sort of like getting a yellow card in a soccer match.

Suspect wood will be held while it's examined for live insects. A letter of notification will then be attached to the shipment. The agent I spoke with said, if the port is busy, the shipment may be delayed while the inspectors clear compliant cargo, then get back to the non-compliant cargo. He says it will take time to do the research and issue the letters on non-compliant shipments. Apparently, slowing a shipment is not the same as stopping a shipment.

Beginning February 1, 2006, Phase II kicks in. This will be a continuance of informed compliance on all regulated WPM except pallets and crates. This is when CBP will begin full compliance enforcement of the ban on violative pallets and crates.

Then, beginning July 5, 2006, Phase III will represent full enforcement of WPM ban as regulated by 7 CFR 319. CBP will no longer conduct its informed compliance at the shipment level.

What does this latest twist in the plot mean to pallet users, makers and suppliers? I was talking with Per Ohstrom, director of marketing at CHEP (Orlando, Fla.) about this at Pack Expo Las Vegas. He said his customers are taking different approaches. (When last I wrote about ISPM-15, CHEP had just introduced its heat-treated pallet targeted at companies that ship overseas.) Ohstrom told me a few of the customers are returning pallets intended for export. "We have the more forward-thinkers sticking with the pallet," he said. "They know that by July they'll need the pallets and they don't want to get their name on any list."

I'm confident we'll eventually get this important piece of international legislation worked out. Thomas Jefferson said, the execution of the laws is more important than the making of them. ISPM-15 is one regulation, long in the making, that will eventually have an important impact on global environmental conditions.

ISPM-15 is one regulation, long in the making, that will eventually have an important impact on global environmental conditions.