Customs, APHIS inspectors needed at ports to meet growing demand

Published on August 28, 2019
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CBP Beagle
A Customs and Border Protection Beagle finds food in luggage. Pending legislation would give the agency more money for inspectors, including canine teams. (Courtesy of CBP)

Members of Congress are calling for hundreds more agriculture inspections at ports of entry.

The bipartisan legislation, introduced in July, would let U.S. Customs and Border Protection hire 240 more agriculture specialists each year until the agency fills a 720-person need.

At the same time, one-third of Department of Agriculture jobs for veterinary inspectors at ports are unfilled, and service demands are intensifying. CBP agriculture specialists check for invasive species, contaminants, diseases, and restricted or prohibited items, whereas USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service veterinarians inspect and monitor live animal imports and germplasm.

APHIS spokesperson Joelle R. Hayden provided a statement that the service has vacancies in 11 of the agency's 36 positions for veterinarians at ports of entry. Veterinarians from elsewhere in APHIS are traveling to ports as needed to prevent interruptions in shipping and address surges in demand.

Sen. Gary C. Peters of Michigan introduced the Protecting America's Food and Agriculture Act of 2019 (S 2107) along with Sens. John Cornyn of Texas, Pat Roberts of Kansas, and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan. For fiscal years 2020-22, the bill would give the CBP $106.5 million to hire agriculture specialists, $74 million to hire agriculture-focused technicians, and $23.1 million to hire canine teams.

In a September 2017 report, CBP leaders cited growth in travel and trade in asking Congress for the 720 more agriculture specialists as well as about 2,500 more officers. The hires would reduce wait times and increase trade volumes, according to the report.

A statement from the senators describes the need for inspectors as a shortage. Sen. Peters noted that millions of pounds of agricultural products pass through ports of entry each day.

"Agricultural inspectors are responsible for ensuring these goods move efficiently across our borders while safeguarding against harmful pests, diseases and even potential bioterrorism attacks," he said in the statement. "This bill will help ensure we have enough inspectors to secure America's domestic food supply and agricultural industries and protect the health and safety of people in Michigan and across the country."

CBP data indicate agency employees find about 350 pests at entry ports in a typical day, and they quarantine about 4,400 items: plants, animal products, and soil. During FY 2018, for example, CBP officials seized 1.7 million prohibited items at ports of entry and found 17,000 consequential pests, and those working to secure cargo found another 39,000 potentially harmful pests.

Hayden said the APHIS veterinarians at ports review and endorse the animal health certificates for animals leaving the country, inspect and monitor the animals and germplasm entering or leaving, and oversee import quarantine facilities.

At high-volume airports, veterinarians can average 30-50 hours of overtime in a two-week pay period, she wrote.

APHIS officials also are getting requests to expand the hours for endorsing health certificates, open another land-based crossing where cattle could enter from Mexico, open more quarantine facilities for incoming horses, and offer appointment-based services at more locations.

But user fees, rather than congressional appropriations, fund the port services. Because of inflation, those fees no longer cover costs such as salaries, equipment, and rent.

"The user fee rates are set by regulation and have not been updated in 10 years," Hayden wrote.

APHIS Veterinary Services has asked that the USDA Workforce Planning and Assessment Division conduct an assessment that could help decide how many veterinarians are needed and where they should work. That could be finished by January 2020, she said.

APHIS officials announced in March that USDA-trained dogs had helped port authorities in New Jersey seize about 1 million pounds of pork smuggled from China, which is dealing with a devastating outbreak of African swine fever. A CBP announcement from 2018 describes seizure of pork sausage from El Salvador, which cannot export pork to the U.S. because of the risk of swine vesicular disease.

Recent CBP announcements describe discoveries—in baggage and cargo—of crop-eating insects, wood-boring insects, curry leaves with citrus disease, and illegal imports of meat, eggs, birds, snails, fruit, vegetables, and turtles.

CBP officials also announced in June they were trying to fill vacancies for agricultural specialists across the U.S., noting openings in Baltimore, Philadelphia, and the District of Columbia.

The senators' statement indicates their bill is supported by groups including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, American Farm Bureau Federation, National Association of State Departments of Agriculture, and National Pork Producers Council.