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Bill would boost inspections at U.S. seaports, airports

Issue Date: February 19, 2020
By Christine Souza

More agricultural inspectors would be hired at U.S. ports of entry to ensure safe, secure trade and prevent entry of pests and diseases, under federal legislation passed by Congress.

President Trump is expected to sign the bill, which intends to address a shortage of U.S. Customs and Border Protection agricultural inspectors. The officers inspect passengers, commercial vessels, trucks, aircraft and railcars at ports of entry to intercept pest and disease threats before they have a chance to harm U.S. agriculture.

The Protecting America's Food and Agriculture Act, which passed last week, authorizes $221 million over three years for CBP to hire 720 new employees. This would include 240 additional agriculture specialists and 200 new agricultural technicians each fiscal year for three years. The funding also includes an annual increase of 20 new canine teams, which detect illicit fruits, vegetables and animal products that might otherwise be missed in initial inspections.

Sara Neagu-Reed, associate director of federal policy for the California Farm Bureau Federation, said the bill would help address inadequate staffing of border areas and ensure additional inspections.

"We've always had a lack of staffing at these ports of entry," Neagu-Reed said, "which means there is a higher probability that cargo shipments and product brought in by travelers could fall through the cracks, allowing invasive pests to come through, such as what happened with the European grapevine moth and the light brown apple moth."

CFBF joined dozens of organizations that urged Congress to pass the bill. In a letter, the groups said foreign pests and diseases "cost the American economy tens of billions of dollars annually." The letter said CBP agricultural specialists "play a vital role in both trade and travel safety and prevent the introduction of harmful foreign animal diseases and exotic plant pests into the U.S."

The California Department of Food and Agriculture monitors the domestic movement of people, goods and cargo to prevent introduction of pests and diseases, and works closely with the CBP agricultural specialists, technicians and canine teams that handle international ports of entry.

State Veterinarian Annette Jones, director of the CDFA Animal Health and Food Safety Services Division, said inadvertent or intentional imports of products from countries with highly infectious diseases pose a real threat to California farms and ranches.

"If a virus happens to sneak through and make it to a farm, the animals have no immunity, so it just devastates them," Jones said.

State and federal inspection agencies watch for animal diseases such as African swine fever, which is spreading through Eastern Europe and some Asian countries.

"(Materials) that were missed coming through the ports is how viruses like that spread, and that's actually how it has spread in several countries so far, so those inspectors are really important," Jones said.

Nick Condos, director of the CDFA Plant Health and Pest Prevention Services Division, said CBP inspectors have "a very important mission" in intercepting plant pests such as the Asian gypsy moth.

"They make ships stop at the port and they inspect them for Asian gypsy moth, including inspecting the pallets and the wood packaging material that carry invasive, wood-boring beetles," Condos said.

He added that fruit flies are a never-ending issue for California.

"We catch fruit flies every year, so that means that they're getting through. But we have a pest prevention system in California and the first part of the system is to exclude the pests, but when you're talking about the volume of material coming into our ports, it's an astronomical workload," Condos said.

Exotic pests that have not been introduced in the U.S. present additional problems, he said.

"Those (international pests) are in many respects the more critical pests. You need to know what their biology is and what kind of damage they're actually capable of doing," Condos said.

Although it has not yet been determined where the newly authorized CBP inspectors might be deployed, given the number of ports of entry in California, Condos said the state could "receive a lion's share of the newly added CBP personnel" authorized by the legislation.

At the Port of Oakland, Director of Governmental Affairs Matt Davis described the port as "a critical gateway for agricultural goods."

"We'll continue to work with our partners at CBP and USDA to ensure that cargo can be processed as quickly as possible if it comes over the dock or via our air cargo operations at the airport," Davis said.

On a typical day, CBP agricultural inspectors process more than 1 million passengers and 78,000 truck, rail and sea containers, the agency estimated. In 2019, CBP said its agricultural specialists seized a daily average of 4,695 prohibited plants, meats, animal byproducts and soil, and intercepted 314 insect pests a day at U.S. ports of entry.

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at csouza@cfbf.com.)

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




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