Border inspection dispute settled, for now

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The new cattle inspection facility near Nuevo Leon, Mexico, began operating Jan. 22. Two positions are being created to help staff it. (Photos courtesy of USDA)

Under a new ruling, federal veterinarians and animal health technicians will not be required to travel into Mexico to inspect cattle. The Veterinary Services division of the Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service announced in January that it has made service in Mexico for current employees a voluntary activity.

The decision comes after months of debate between APHIS and its employees over safety concerns (see JAVMA, Dec. 1, 2012).

The United States allows the importation of 10,000 to 20,000 cattle a month from Mexico. The cattle enter the U.S. through land ports along the U.S.-Mexico border. Because of escalating violence along the border, five of six inspection facilities located on the Mexican side of the Texas-Mexico border were relocated to the U.S. side over the past few years. Cattle must be inspected for tick-borne diseases and tuberculosis along with foot-and-mouth disease and other foreign animal diseases before they are released. The inspections are performed by federal veterinary medical officers assisted by trained livestock inspectors.

In 2011, the Regional Cattlemen’s Union of Nuevo Leon in Mexico began constructing an inspection facility by the Columbia Bridge near Nuevo Laredo, across the border from Laredo, Texas.

APHIS Veterinary Services had announced that beginning in spring 2012, it would open and staff the facility so cattle could be exported to the United States through Laredo, Texas. The opening was pushed back several times, but finally took effect this past September.

The National Association of Federal Veterinarians, speaking on behalf of the federal U.S. veterinary inspectors, told agency managers that assignment to the facility was dangerous and could be life-threatening. The NAFV also challenged the legality of involuntarily assigning civilian employees to a foreign country.

Cattle inspectionIn mid-January, representatives from the State Depart­ment and APHIS Security completed a final review of the Columbia Bridge facility, and after certifying the completion of all requested modifications, gave the USDA the green light to service it.

Soon after, Dr. Kevin P. Varner, APHIS’ Texas area veterinarian-in-charge, sent a memo to Texas area staff on Jan. 18 that said import inspection service would begin Jan. 22 at the Columbia Bridge facility. For four months, inspections will alternate daily between Laredo and Columbia Bridge. During this time, the USDA will review cattle numbers and cattle flow at the five Texas-Mexico land ports, Dr. Varner wrote.

To staff the Columbia Bridge facility, the USDA will use a group of volunteer veterinary medical officers, drawing from those in Texas and elsewhere. At the same time, the USDA will create two new positions for the facility—one for a veterinarian and another for a technician—that would require travel into Mexico as part of the job.

“No current Texas VS employee will be required to work in Mexico and there will be no negative effects on an employee’s career if they do not volunteer,” Dr. Varner wrote.

In a Jan. 22 press release, the NAFV said it applauded the actions by Veterinary Services but does not believe it resolves the entire situation.

“It protects present employees from forced assignments, but does not properly address the ongoing dangers of such travel into Mexico, even if by volunteer employees, and the authority of the agency to place its employees into danger under any circumstances,” according to the NAFV release.