Targeting specified risk areas will provide processors of fruit and vegetables with reassurance, while shortening the time imports are held up by routine inspectors, the USDA claims.
The new process will finally implement elements of a 2002 report and comes at a time when imports into the US are under increasing scrutiny following a series of contamination and food safety scares.
Mike Johanns, agriculture secretary, said the process will allow specialists to better focus on more complex import issues.
"This new approach will allow us to focus less on administrative processes and more on the science of facilitating imports that do not pose a risk of introducing foreign pests and diseases," he said. "A more efficient review process for imported fruits and vegetables should also help to expand market access for US agricultural exports as other countries recognize US efforts to encourage trade."
The new risk-based process for approving certain fruits and vegetables applies only to commodities that can be imported into the US subject to one or more of five designated phytosanitary measures.
These measures are port-of-entry inspection, approved postharvest treatment, a phytosanitary certificate verifying that it originated from a pest-free area, a phytosanitary certificate verifying that it is free from a specified pest or pests or that the risk associated with the commodity can be mitigated through commercial practices.
USDA said that fruit and vegetable imports that require additional phytosanitary measures will continue to undergo the full process.
The changes in inspection rules do not affect which fruits and vegetables are permitted or how the risks of those commodities are evaluated.
Responsibility for regulating imported fruits and vegetables will continue to be shared between the USDA and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), with the former checking for pests and the latter ensuring products meet hygiene and safety standards.
A notice-based process for approving pest-free areas in countries exporting to the US is also being established by the USDA. This will allow the agency to be more responsive in recognizing changes in the pest-free status of certain areas, the USDA said.
The importation of fruit and vegetables has doubled since 1994, with market value of $12.7bn in 2004, according to USDA statistics.
According to the USDA's publication, Amber Waves, the surge in imports can be traced to a growing consumer demand for produce from tropical regions, produce that complements US seasonal patterns of production, and produce that competes directly with US production.