U.S. importers already contending with one of the most severe economic downturns of the past century will face yet another challenge beginning in January, when new regulations requiring additional information about shipments entering the U.S. by ship kick in. The government sees the rules as a critical part of its ongoing efforts to improve the security of international supply chains and therefore worth the increased costs that will be borne by importers, retailers and ultimately consumers. Officials have also cast the rules as a much less onerous alternative to 100 percent scanning of all imported goods, which current law requires but the Department of Homeland Security is actively fighting.

In late November, U.S. Customs and Border Protection issued its importer security filing rule, also known as "10 plus 2," which had been in the works for nearly a year. Under this rule companies importing goods into the U.S. and the ship lines carrying those products will have to provide customs with a range of additional cargo and shipment information beginning Jan. 26, 2009. Importers--and this designation can include the owner, purchaser, consignee, customs broker or even the carrier--will be responsible for 10 data elements, including information that identifies the manufacturer, supplier, seller, buyer and consignee; the country of origin and tariff classification number; where and by whom the goods were stuffed into the container; and the party responsible for compliance with applicable import requirements. Less information will be required for goods remaining on the ship or transiting the U.S. to another country. Cargo ships will have to submit a vessel stow plan, which details where a shipment is physically on the vessel, and certain messages about the status of the containers on board.

To its credit, customs has watered the rule down somewhat from its original version in response to industry concerns. Full enforcement isn't slated to take effect until 2010, following a year of education, outreach and informed compliance efforts. There's additional flexibility as to when some information can be reported and how accurate it has to be when initially filed.

Even so, the new regulations could be a heavy burden on importers, especially small and medium-sized enterprises that may have a hard time obtaining the required information. Liability for the accuracy and timeliness of the information rests solely on the importer, regardless of whether it uses a customs broker or other intermediary to file it. Violations can be met with penalties of up to $5,000 and instructions not to load the shipment on board the vessel.

There are a number of steps that affected importers--and that includes just about all of them--should take to minimize the effect of the 10 plus 2 rule on their operations. If you're going to have a customs broker or a third-party agent file the required information for you, work with them to ensure your data is accurate and on time and review associated powers of attorney, confidentiality agreements and other written instructions. Educate your supply chain partners on the new rules and develop an efficient process for collecting the needed information from them. Make sure your internal audit and record-keeping procedures are up-to-date.