US House members seek monthly updates on FMC’s agriculture export probe

Members of the US House of Representatives are joining a group of Senators in supporting a probe by the Federal Maritime Commission (FMC) into the inability of agriculture exporters to secure containers, and want the FMC to provide monthly updates on the matter.

In a letter sent Tuesday to the FMC, 112 House members said the delays facing agricultural shippers in securing containers that began last fall has become an “urgent matter” and asked that the FMC speed up its fact finding into alleged denial of export bookings. The House members also urged the FMC to use any penalties at its disposal to prevent delays for US exports.

“Should the investigation reveal any wrongdoing, we urge the Commission to take appropriate enforcement actions to end such practices swiftly and decisively,” the House members said.

The letter follows a similar one that was sent last week by 24 senators who called on FMC chairman Michael Khouri to expedite the commission’s ongoing probe into carrier behavior.

The probe originally looked at the impact of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) on the container supply chain, but was expanded last November to delve more specifically into detention and demurrage fees paid by shippers, the difficulties in returning empty containers, and the availability of containers for US export cargoes.

With demand for Chinese exports — and headhaul freight rates — at near-record levels since July 2020, US exporters have accused ocean carriers of denying bookings for agricultural cargo originating in the middle of the country to speed the repositioning of empty containers back to China.

The FMC’s probe and Congress’ interest in the matter come as agricultural products stand out as one area of growth for US exporters. Data from PIERS, a sister product within IHS Markit, showed that agricultural exports rose 6 percent in the first 11 months of 2020, compared with an 8.1 percent decline across all US exports over the same time.

The letter from the House members said that more than 20 percent of US agricultural products are for export, with no other way to reach their destination than by ocean freight. It added that the “largely unrestricted access” to US ports allowed to ocean carriers means that “trade opportunities should be reciprocal.”

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