Bill would move ag inspections back to USDA


Issue Date: March 28, 2007
Kate Campbell

U.S. Border Patrol personnel check vehicles entering the United States at Tijuana for illegal substances, including banned agricultural products.

With government reports showing a big drop in agricultural inspections at U.S. ports of entry, legislation has been introduced in the Senate to transfer inspections back to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service from the Department of Homeland Security.

Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Dick Durbin, D-Ill., have introduced a bill that would mandate the transfer. A similar proposal has been introduced in the House. It is included in advance Farm Bill legislation being developed by Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced. The proposal also will be taken up during general Farm Bill discussions, as well.

APHIS had controlled agriculture inspections prior to March 2003. But the responsibility was transferred to DHS as part of the Homeland Security Act. The agricultural inspection function was combined with the inspection activities of the Department of the Treasury's Customs Service, the Department of Justice's Immigration and Naturalization Service, and USDA's APHIS. The newly created department now is called Customs and Border Protection.

The legislation has wide-ranging support, including the California Farm Bureau Federation, California Food and Agriculture Secretary A.G. Kawamura, the American Landscape and Nursery Association, Jerry Prieto Jr., president of the California Agriculture Commissioners and Sealers Association and the Nisei Farmers League. Environmental groups supporting the bill include The Nature Conservancy, Environmental Defense, National Wildlife Federation, Union of Concerned Scientists and Defenders of Wildlife.

"Inspections are the first line of defense against exotic pests," Feinstein said. "Yet inspections have dropped dramatically since responsibility has been vested with the Department of Homeland Security. It is time to put USDA back in charge of inspections and ensure that keeping these pests out remains a top priority."

A Government Accountability Office report released in 2006, revealed that since the USDA transferred responsibility for port inspections, fewer agricultural inspections have been conducted at key points of entry and the morale of agriculture specialists has been low.

"When the DHS/APHIS merger was first advanced, the agricultural community expressed grave concerns that pest exclusion would lose out," said Jack King, CFBF National Affairs manager. "Unfortunately, despite DHS's best intentions many of those fears materialized, especially with the eventual loss of experienced and dedicated APHIS employees.

"We are concerned that effectiveness has been lost," King said. "For example, the number of canine units has declined by 30 to 40 percent. The ?sniffing' dogs used to detect banned products have been highly effective over the years at airports and border stations, so a decline in numbers is a setback."

The USDA estimates that agricultural pests cost the American agricultural industry $41 billion annually. In California alone, pest infestations cost farmers about $3 billion a year.

"When inspection rates at key American points of entry decrease, the threat of infestation dramatically increases," said Durbin. "We owe it to the American people to make sure our government is doing all it can to control the spread of invasive species."

California farmers continue to battle against serious agricultural pests, such as the glassy-winged sharpshooter, the Asian long-horned beetle and the Mediterranean fruit fly, among many others.

"Once these pests and diseases have entered the country, it is very difficult and expensive to control the damage," Feinstein said. "The best way to prevent damage to our crops is to stop agricultural pests from entering our country in the first place."

When introducing the bill, the senators pointed out that during the time DHS has been in charge of agriculture inspections, Fresno County experienced its first fruit fly outbreak, quarantine and costly eradication program.

According to the Fresno County Agricultural Commissioner's Office, the pest was the peach fruit fly, which is indigenous to Asia. This pest is not known to occur in Mexico and had to enter the country through one of the federal ports of entry in smuggled fruit carried in by a passenger. The eradication effort cost approximately $1 million.

In Illinois, a destructive insect known as the emerald ash borer has been discovered in several areas. The ash borer is a bright green beetle that kills trees by burrowing into their bark and destroying the trees' ability to bring water from the roots to upper branches. Infected trees usually begin to die within two to three years of infestation.

"The discovery of the emerald ash borer in Illinois is troubling news," Durbin said. "In the past few years, this insect has killed tens of millions of trees throughout the Midwest, and we need to get ahead of this infestation before it gets worse."

(Kate Campbell is a reporter for Ag Alert. She may be contacted at kcampbell@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.