By Jim Forsyth
SAN ANTONIO (Reuters) - U.S. Customs agents at ports of entry along the country's southern border are charged with searching cars and cargo for weapons, drugs, terrorists and smugglers.
This week, they'll have yet another responsibility: Inspecting tens of millions of Valentine's Day flowers.
Ninety percent of the flowers Americans will give to their sweethearts on Valentine's Day are imported, and nearly all of those imports originate in Colombia and Ecuador. Before they can enter the United States, the flowers must be inspected for signs of bugs or disease.
That means at Miami International Airport's cargo terminal, the country's largest flower entry port, officials will inspect more than 670 million Valentine's Day flowers this year, according to the Association of Floral Importers of Florida.
And almost all of them will arrive in the United States this week, since fresh flowers can't be frozen, stored or shelved. Plus, they must get from the fields of Colombia to the flower shop to the recipient's vase at precisely the right moment: Late flowers aren't exactly the height of romance.
"Valentine's Day is an unusual holiday," said Christine Boldt, the association's executive vice president. "You can buy a Christmas gift in October and stick it in your closet. Even flowers for Mother's Day don't have to be given to Mom on that day. Moms are very forgiving and a couple of days either way won't matter."
However, "if you don't give fresh flowers to your wife or girlfriend on Valentine's Day, you're history."
The result is a flower rush that hits the ports of entry at the same time, which Chuck Pritchard, a Customs and Border Protection official at the Miami port of entry, says makes for a hectic week.
"This is a very busy time for us," Pritchard said. "We bring officers in from other stations to help deal with this additional work."
Every refrigerated container of flowers and the wooden pallets on which the flowers are loaded must be inspected to make sure they are not carrying any insects or diseases that could infect U.S. agriculture.
During last year's Valentine import season, Customs and Border Protection identified 1,176 pests on flowers imported from Colombia and 866 on Ecuadorian flowers, according to CBP supervisor Eduardo Perez in Brownsville, Texas. The intercepted pests included miner flies, aphids and moths.
Ensuring that flowers arrive in local florist shops at exactly the right time for Valentine's Day is a logistical headache - and doesn't come cheap.
Colombian and Ecuadorian growers have to time their blooms for just the right moment, then bring in extra crews to harvest and cut roses by hand. Flights then must be added to get the flowers to Miami and the other ports of entry, where they are transferred to waiting trucks to be taken just in time to florist shops.
All that costs money, and is the reason flowers at Valentine's Day are more expensive than flowers the rest of the year, said Bolt, of Florida's flower importer association.
"It isn't opportunistic and greedy florists taking advantage of young lovers, like most people think," she said. "Most florists would probably tell you that they actually lose money on Valentine's Day due to the costs of making all of this happen in the course of a week or so."
At the Customs station in Brownsville, Perez said that inspectors enjoy the opportunity during "flower week" to help couples celebrate Valentine's Day.
"This is just one added thing that we're looking for," he said. "Of course, our focus is on stopping weapons of terror coming into this country."
(Reporting By Jim Forsyth; Editing by Corrie MacLaggan and Paul Thomasch)