Owens said adding personnel and training was helping address the problems.
He also said other mandatory programs that require such things submitting cargo and crew data electronically to border agents in advance and developing security plans aboard all ships sailing to U.S. ports and at the ports themselves have helped secure U.S. imports. All suspicious cargo coming through the ports is now inspected either physically or with X-ray, gamma ray and radiation detecting equipment, and there have been no discoveries of weapons of mass destruction.
"We've clearly taken huge steps from where we were a few years ago," said Owens, adding that WCO has seen value in all these measures because the international program is based on them.
Industry officials say they'd still like to see more resources dedicated to security. And while businesses often prefer voluntary measures, some rules -- such as the tamper-proof seals on cargo containers -- should be mandatory so the security measures are effective and so everyone has the same costs, said Tay Yoshitani, a senior adviser to the Coalition for Secure Ports, an industry group.
Yoshitani, also a former executive at the port of Baltimore, called the new World Customs Organization's voluntary effort a "clever approach" to getting more participation than a mandatory program that some countries and shippers are not yet prepared to handle.
"We can't have a bunch of different standards, or no standards," he said. "How effective this will be and how smoothly this will work, I don't think anyone knows. But unless we have some assurances across borders, none of us can feel secure."