Agricultural quarantine inspection stumbles

Things have not gone smoothly for the Agricultural Quarantine Inspection program, which is responsible for checking international passengers and cargo entering the United States to protect the country’s agriculture from pests and diseases

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When the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was created, responsibility for the Agricultural Quarantine Inspection program was largely transferred to the sprawling new agency from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Since then, things have not gone smoothly for the program, which is responsible for checking international passengers and cargo entering the United States to protect the country’s agriculture from pests and diseases. A 2006 Government Accountability Office (GAO) survey found that the majority of the program’s specialists believed the transfer had compromised the inspection mission; three-fifths said they were conducting fewer inspections and interceptions of prohibited agriculture items since joining the DHS.

Another concern was that the program is being overshadowed by counterterrorism activities. A joint DHS/USDA audit in 2007 found the program lacking on many fronts; among the problems were inadequate inspections, poor morale, and staff retention. The transition was “rife with turmoil,” John Jurich, an investigator for the House Committee on Agriculture, testified in 2007, adding that morale problems resulted in an “exodus of agricultural officers.” The audit report found that agriculture specialists decreased by 17 percent between June 2003 and February 2005. According to the GAO, as of August 2007 the program had only two-thirds of the personnel required. Negligence of the program, which has been termed the first line of defense for the $1 trillion U.S. agriculture industry, could be costly for the nation — both for industry’s health and the safety of American consumers.

Follow-up:
Last year, Senator Dianne Feinstein of California and other congressional Democrats introduced legislation to move the inspectors back to USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, the program’s pre-transfer home. She withdrew the measure after DHS chief Michael Chertoff announced creation of a new position to oversee agricultural inspections. Vernon Foret, executive director of Agriculture Programs and Trade Liaison at Customs and Border Protection, told the Center that his office has instituted various reforms, including increased staffing levels, more agriculture inspections, and additional scientific equipment.

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