Food Fears

Fresh imports could threaten American farms

Before biting into that tomato or munching on a mango, stop to consider where they've been.

In a time when meat, fruit and vegetables are shipped around the globe, that's certainly food for thought--and reason for concern under a federal security plan called One Face at the Border. Within the Customs and Border Protection agency, three separate inspectors--Customs, immigration and agriculture--have morphed into a single position (see last week's Border Squeeze-Play"). As a result, say critics, crucial food inspections are now given short shrift. And that could place our food supply at unprecedented risk.

Alarm bells went off in March, when the U.S. Government Accountability Office issued a troubling report. "Since the September 11, 2001, attacks," it says, "there are new concerns about the vulnerability of U.S. agriculture to the deliberate introduction of animal and plant diseases (agro-terrorism)."

That's a direct result of shipping nearly 2,000 former U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors over to the Customs and Border Patrol Service, says Michael Randall. A veteran inspector himself, and based in Hawaii, he heads the National Association of Agriculture Employees. Randall says port and border inspections "are not at the level they once were." For proof, he points to insect interceptions--the way inspection levels are rated. "Interceptions are down, and they've been down for several years now, under CBP influence," he says.

One cause is a massive brain-drain, he says, describing agriculture inspectors as highly skilled, college-educated and scientifically oriented. "But now they're issued body armor. Being police officers was not the profession they chose." As a result, from March 2003 when he says 1,800 inspectors were transferred from the USDA, these so-called "legacy inspectors" now number only about 1,200. "They're very demoralized, and the CBP is still losing six to eight of them every two weeks."

Forcing all border inspectors into an anti-terrorism role is big mistake, he says. "Agricultural inspectors are there to find the day-to-day problems. Grandma is the terrorist--all it would take is Grandma bringing in an infected plant and not declaring it. She could do just as much damage as a terrorist."

Any parasites along for the ride could cause widespread infestations and massive food shortages in this country. But since customs, immigration and agriculture inspectors are all cross-trained, there are actually more eyes to watch suspicious food imports, says Sue Challis, a CBP spokeswoman. "I had been at the southern border several years ago, and there could be an agriculture person, a Customs person and an immigration person working side-by-side for two years and not even know what the other was doing," she says. "Now that's all changed."

Nor have strict guidelines been relaxed, she says. "They are still enforcing USDA rules and regulations" at the border.

Is it enough? Jim Stack doesn't think so. A plant pathologist with the National Agricultural Biosecurity Center at Kansas State University, he says the government needs a better game plan for immediately getting more inspectors at ports-of-entry. "One of the bottlenecks has been getting security clearances for a lot of these people. So even though they may have funds to hire them, it's been a very slow process to get them hired, trained and deployed."

Nor has the risk ever been greater, he says. "We move so much agricultural product around now. Then we have people who move fruits and vegetables and other plant materials across borders, either because they just don't understand what they're doing, or because they just disregard the regulations. That's probably a higher risk right now than bio-terrorism."

It's a point not lost on domestic farmers, says Caroline Rydell, director of congressional relations for the American Farm Bureau. "We have expressed concerns that there are still vacancies among agriculture inspectors at the border," she says. "A slight infestation could be devastating for agriculture" in this country.

Mexican growers are also at risk if an outbreak occurs, since they rely on American consumers confident in buying their fruits and vegetables. "Our big concern is that the USDA has the expertise and the knowledge--the science side," says Allison Moore, a spokeswoman for the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas. Based in Nogales, Ariz., the association is a trade group for Mexican growers and brokers who ship some 3.5 billion pounds of produce through that city each year.

"If you remove the frontline people working in agriculture inspection from their science support," she says, "how are you going to insure that everyone is (fully) trained, and how are you going to be sure that they're in contact with USDA and getting the latest information, the most recent training?"

Moore says Mexican growers spend lots of money insuring that their produce is safe and high quality. "So when growers in Mexico are shipping things here to the U.S., they want to make sure that the process is seamless as possible and that the inspectors are knowledgeable. We don't want someone who's not trained properly holding up a load because they don't understand what they're looking at."

Computer technology increasingly dictates what loads are inspected. But that can't replace human expertise, he says. For example, a recent shipment of the popular dietary supplement chondroitin arrived from Spain. The supplement--used to treat sore joints--is made from animal tissue. "But Spain happens to be a place that has mad cow disease. Would you like to take chondroitin pills made from mad cow material?"

Still, it was logged into the computer as a chemical shipment, he says. "So it was only through luck that somebody caught it."

The public also needs a wake-up call, says Jim Stack. "We have a serious education issue in this country with respect to agriculture. We laugh it off sometimes, that the general public thinks our food comes from a supermarket. And that is true--and it's not funny. The issue is that people don't really understand how their food gets to them. And therefore, they don't take serious the threat posed by moving plant materials around. And those threats are huge."

Stack recently chatted with one border official "who told me that in 2004, they intercepted 69,000 potential introductions of dangerous pests. And by their own figures, they're only inspecting 1 to 2 percent of what's coming across the border. So in only one or two percent, they intercepted 69,000 (dangerous pests)."

Crunch the numbers, and you'll find that the true number of dangerous pests and pathogens coming across the border "are astronomical," he says. "We're playing with fire by not being vigilant about this."

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