December 01, 2012


 Border showdown

​USDA officials, federal veterinarians working to resolve safety concerns

Posted Nov. 19, 2012 
Conversations continue at the Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service between executive management and the veterinarians and technicians who inspect cattle along the U.S.-Mexican border (see JAVMA, July 15, 2012).

At issue is whether conditions are safe enough in the area of a new inspection facility completed this fall near Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. APHIS officials maintain they are, but some veterinarians feel otherwise.

“This is the first time that APHIS wants employees to go back into Mexico to inspect imported cattle in an area that employees feel is unsafe,” said Dr. Michael Gilsdorf, executive vice president of the National Association of Federal Veterinarians, which represents the approximately 3,200 federally employed veterinarians. 

Different perspectives

About 1.6 million cattle were imported from Mexico into the U.S. in fiscal year 2012. They are inspected for diseases and pests, primarily fever tick infestation, foot-and-mouth disease, and tuberculosis, before they are released into domestic feedlots and other facilities for eventual slaughter. The inspections are performed by veterinary medical officers and trained livestock inspectors—both employed by Veterinary Services of APHIS—at 13 border stations from Texas to California.

Most of these inspections take place in facilities and cattle pens in Mexico near the U.S. border. This is to prevent cattle from entering the U.S. before they’ve been inspected. Over the past few years, all the cattle pens or facilities on the Mexican side of the border with Texas have been closed permanently or for substantial periods because of drug violence.

Starting several years ago, temporary inspection facilities were built on the U.S. side of the border—five total, all in Texas—to safeguard the safety of inspectors while still ensuring that potentially diseased cattle could not enter the general population.

Also during this time, the Regional Cattlemen’s Union of Nuevo Leon began constructing an inspection facility near Nuevo Laredo, across the border from Laredo, Texas.

APHIS spokeswoman Lyndsay M. Cole said it was built specifically with the safety of Veterinary Services employees in mind.

“We had direct input into the design of the facility and provided specific requirements that had to be met,” she said. “We continually monitor the situation at all of our livestock inspection facilities. Security assessments are part of routine operations at these facilities, and we make decisions on our activities accordingly.”

On Aug. 29, Veterinary Services notified its employees that the new facility near Nuevo Laredo was tentatively scheduled to open for inspections on Sept. 7 pending the completion of security assessments, the training of Veterinary Services employees, and an evaluation of results of efforts to test the capabilities of the facility.

Officials with APHIS, in conjunction with the State Department, conducted a complete security assessment and found the facility to be low-risk.

“In the past few years, one of the USDA APHIS VS inspectors was stopped at gunpoint while driving to conduct an inspection at another Mexican facility. He was questioned and later released by drug cartel members. This and other local information these veterinarians hear cause them concern. They are also concerned that this new facility is only a quarter mile from the main highway that drug cartels use,” Dr. Gilsdorf said.

Veterinary Services officials, at a meeting with NAFV representatives in June, said the new facility has reinforced concrete walls, an automatic weapons emplacement, a secure room with a steel door, and Mexican military.

Additionally, officials told the NAFV the agency had a concern that potentially infected cattle should not be allowed across the border to inspection facilities in the U.S.

Dr. Gilsdorf said he agreed that bringing potentially infected cattle into the U.S. is certainly a concern but added, “At the other ports on the U.S. side of the border, cattle have been coming in under seal and go(ing) directly to the facility for many years without any disease control issues. If veterinarians find any problems, they’re dipped, loaded, and shipped directly back to Mexico and do not enter the U.S., because they haven’t been officially released.” 

Monitoring the situation

APHIS supervisory officials had a mandatory meeting for a group of Texas-based Veterinary Services employees Sept. 13 in Laredo to talk about the situation. At least four veterinarians later agreed to look at the facility that day, and they also inspected a limited number of cattle to test the capabilities of the facility. Representatives from the State Department also attended the meeting.
Dr. Gilsdorf said he heard from some of the veterinarians who attended that they remain unconvinced inspections in Mexico are necessary and did not feel comfortable about working in that area.
Starting in 2010, U.S. veterinarians performed cattle inspections at Mexican stockyards. However, drug violence along the border forced the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service to open five temporary facilities in Texas—at Del Rio, Eagle Pass, Laredo, Pharr, and Presidio. A newly built inspection facility in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, has yet to be staffed.
“One reason they didn’t feel comfortable was because the facility itself was supposed to have been locked down tight with all gates closed, but all the gates were open. They were also supposed to have some sort of guard station close by, but they weren’t impressed because when they got there, the guard was asleep,” he said.
In mid-October, Dr. Gilsdorf had conversations about those concerns with a USDA official and was told that the facility was still not completed at that time. The official also restated that the agency would not send employees into an area that is considered dangerous by the State Department.
As of mid-November, the two sides remained in talks. The veterinarians maintain they can continue evaluating cattle on the U.S. side without threatening public health and stay safe in the process. Meanwhile, administrators are evaluating conditions in Mexico with the help of the State Department, and they hoped to determine soon if or when veterinarians would be able to resume inspections on the Mexican side of the border.
Dr. John Clifford, USDA chief veterinary officer, said, “APHIS will continue to do everything possible to ensure the safety and security of its employees. Ensuring their safety and security is our main goal. We value the input our employees have provided, and we will continue to work closely with them as we determine our next steps.”