Fruit importers have always had a lot of headaches. Weather tops the list, and is joined by currency fluctuations and political unrest. Now there is a new problem, and Eva Rodriguez-Szewczyk, at right, iTi Tropical’s director of regulatory affairs, is on the front lines. She is just back from a trip to visit her one of her company’s processors in Ecuador. She made the trip in the company of two United States customs agents. She also recently met with the agents at a California warehouse where her company stores its exotic fruit purees before they head out to the manufacturing facilities of major food producers.

“Homeland Security thinks that the next terrorist attack will involve a shipping container,” she says. She has been told that a likely scenario would have terrorists slipping explosives into a shipment of food somewhere in the chain that leads from a foreign processing plant through a warehouse in the United States and out onto the road. The shipment would then be driven into a big city, possibly “the middle of Manhattan,” she has been told, and blown up.

“An agent said to me ‘Thank God it’s only drugs,’” when he discovered a foreign object in a scan of a shipping container, says Rodriguez. Agents are now hugely relieved when the problem “is only drugs.” That used to be the big fear, but it now pales next to the threat that is uppermost in their minds.

In an attempt to make the country’s far flung supply chain as safe as possible, the federal government is signing up importers, carriers, brokers, warehouse agents, and manufacturers in a voluntary program to ensure that security procedures are in place.

“They can’t inspect every shipment,” says Rodriguez. “It’s impossible. They can only inspect a small percentage.” So the government is enlisting importers and others in the supply chain to help. It has initiated a container seal compliance program called C-TPAT, Customs Trade Partnership Against Terrorism (www.customs.gov). Importers whose procedures meet government safety standards are awarded certification in three levels. iTi Tropicals has achieved level one certification, and is now working on its level two certificate.

Gert van Manen, president of the company, says that level two is as high as a food importer has to go. The highest level, he says, is reserved for “pharmaceuticals and things like that.”

In exchange for compliance with the standards set forth in the C-TPAT program, preferred vendors, like iTi Tropicals, have been assured that in case of any sort of emergency, like the attacks of 9-11, its shipments would not be held up, as would those of importers that had not achieved certification.

The bookcase in Rodriguez’s office is lined with binders that set out detailed safety and security procedures that her company’s processors have to follow. Along with van Manen and his sales director, Don Giampetro, she conducts frequent field audits to ensure compliance. In addition, she works with the FDA on compliance with all regulations regarding food safety.

She says that her company’s oversight program is made easier because 60 percent of all of its processors are in Ecuador, a stable country. It also has processors in Colombia, India, the Philippines, Peru, Brazil, Costa Rica, and Indonesia.

Rodriguez is a native of Colombia, where she earned a bachelor’s degree studied microbiology. She came to the United States to keep a friend company, and planned to stay for six months — just long enough to learn the language. “But then I realized that it would take longer than six months,” she says, “so I thought, why not go to graduate school here?”

She earned a master’s degree in food science at Rutgers, and while doing so met her husband, an immigrant from Poland who was studying biology at the university. He is now working in animal science for a division of Wyeth, and she is here to stay. After earning her master’s degree, Rodriguez went to work for large food manufacturers, including Kraft.

Three and a half years ago, when a recruiter called saying that iTi Tropicals was looking for someone with her expertise, she was delighted to find that the company was only a few miles from her West Windsor home. It is a longer commute to the new offices, but still not bad, and she enjoys working for the small company. “You get to wear many hats,” she says.

One wall in her new office is decorated with a huge, colorful drawing of a ladybug and a worm climbing around on tulips. The older of her two children drew it in art class and Stephanie van Manen had it blown up, printed on canvas, and hung on a wall opposite a painting of topical fruit. It is a sunny image for the office of a food science specialist with the unexpectedly serious mission of making sure that her company’s shipments of exotic fruit do not somehow become terrorists’ weapons.

“It’s ongoing work,” says Rodriguez. “There isn’t a person at iTi who isn’t involved.”

— Kathleen McGinn Spring

#h#Dutch Touch On Nassau Street#/h#

Long before the iTi building in Lawrenceville, Princeton may have come close to resembling a Dutch canal town. “This building was a prototype,” says Julie Howson, director of research at Gund Investments, of 12 Nassau Street, the Dutch Revival building her company has owned since 1968.

The gabled building with the generous windows and yellow stucco facade is familiar to anyone who has ever spent time waiting for the light at the intersection of University Place and Nassau Street. It was built in 1896 “when Amsterdam was a big financial center,” says Howson. There was some thought of continuing the style all the way down Nassau Street, she recounts, but then the Amsterdam markets collapsed, and the idea was abandoned.

Constance Grieff wrote about the building in her 1967 book “Princeton Architecture: A Pictorial History of Town and Campus.” It was designed by William Stone, a New York architect with a lesser reputation than Stanford White, William Mead, or Charles Follen McKim, whose firm designed Princeton University’s Cottage Club. Stone, however, “was a favored architect for people about to move into the new streets behind Morven,” she writes.

“Princeton has one unusual and outstanding example of Dutch Revival by Stone,” she continues, “the old Princeton Bank and Trust Company building at 12 Nassau Street. Of this building Montgomery Schuyler wrote, ‘Of the many buildings which have been suggested by that famous and fantastic old 16th-century meat market of Haarlem, none is more successful of seems more in place than this.”

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