Stopping pests and diseases at the border

In April 2012, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) Office of Field Operations’ Agriculture Programs and Trade Liaison (APTL) estimated that U.S. agriculture generates more than $1 trillion in economic activity annually. The “greatest risks to the success of this industry,” according to a CBP fact sheet, “are exotic plant pests and foreign animal diseases. Currently, invasive species cause an estimated $136 billion in lost agriculture revenue annually.”

Agriculture’s frontline defense against this imported threat is the CBP cadre of 2,360 agriculture specialists deployed at more than 165 points of entry (POE) in the U.S., including airports, seaports, land border crossings and international mail facilities.

The job of agricultural inspection has become more challenging in today’s global trade environment of complex travel and trade. New and varied food items are increasingly of interest to the American public. The CBP Agriculture Specialists are watchful for nonnative plant pests, weeds, animal and zoonotic disease pathogens, and any organism that could cause economic or environmental harm to U.S. agriculture, range and forest systems. They inspect passengers and cargo with the goal of stopping “America’s Most Unwanted” at the U.S. border.

CBP works in close cooperation with U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service and U.S. Food and Drug Administration personnel and other federal agencies to enforce rules and regulations surrounding preservation and safety of agricultural resources.

The U.S.-Canada land border spans 5,525 miles with 84 POEs; the U.S.-Mexico border is 1,933 miles wide with 25 POEs. America’s shorelines total 95,471 miles with 143 POEs. The agriculture specialists are deployed throughout the U.S. and its territories.

Inspections are essentially the same at all POEs. While Canada may not be able to grow products native to tropical climates, imports of such may still come across the northern border POEs and must be checked for admissibility, insect pests and other unwanted entities.

The agriculture specialists inspect the crews, passengers and cargo of arriving international flights, as well as their food supplies and garbage, to prevent the entry of prohibited items.

If an item or shipment is “intercepted,” it is held for further inspection, identification and, as needed, quarantine; treatment, such as fumigation; or return to the country of origin.

The USDA APHIS program uses scientific risk assessment and strict regulations to weigh the risks associated with agricultural imports and to restrict them pending treatment or to prohibit their entry.

Tools and targets

The tools used by the specialists range from simple observation to high-tech instruments. They use magnifying loupes, hammers and chisels, knives, sieves, digital cameras and stereomicroscopes. Some ports use X-ray machines to check luggage, international mail or cargo.

In 2011, the CBP agriculture specialists conducted more than 25 million individual arriving passenger inspections and more than 34 million cargo inspections. They identified 75,688 reportable pests and intercepted quarantine material on more than 1.68 million occasions. Plant material and soil accounted for more than 1.2 million interceptions, meat products 445,946, and animal byproducts 18,531.

High-profile species interceptions in 2012 included khapra beetle, Asian gypsy moth and the aphid-like Asian citrus psyllid. CBP and APHIS work together to develop training modules for targeted species that pose particularly significant threats.

The khapra beetle, native to India, eats almost any dried plant or animal matter, but particularly destroys grain products, seeds, spices and packaged foods. This insect also feeds on the glue in corrugated cartons. A quarantine order was placed on the beetle on July 30, 2011. In March 2012, CBP reported the interception of the beetle on 35 occasions in a one-month period. Inspectors found the pest mostly in shipments of rice.

Agriculture Imports and Inspection Timeline

Excerpted from “U.S. Department of Agriculture, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service – Protecting America’s Agricultural Resources,” an October 2007 U.S. Government Accountability Office Report on the Agricultural Quarantine Inspection Program, and a 2004 Congressional Research Service report.

Colonial times: The British government encouraged farmers to produce crops nonnative to the colonies to reduce England’s dependence on foreign sources. Thomas Jefferson reportedly said, “The greatest service which can be rendered to any country is to add a useful plant to its culture.” Livestock were also imported to the colonies.

1789: The First Congress’ second legislative initiative established federal authority over goods imported into the U.S. and later created what would become the U.S. Customs Service.

1836: The Commissioner of Patents began distributing (nonnative) seeds and plants of foreign origin throughout the U.S.

1862: The USDA was created and continued to obtain rare and valuable bulbs, seeds, vines and cuttings from foreign sources.

1912: The Plant Quarantine Act addressed growing concern about pest outbreaks in U.S. nursery stock and allowed the USDA to declare quarantines. At the time, the U.S. was the only major country without protection against the importation of infested plants.

1928: The Plant Quarantine and Control Administration was established to oversee exclusion and plant health programs under one federal agency.

1953: Plant Quarantine and Bureau of Entomology functions were transferred to the Agricultural Research Service.

1970: Plant Protection and Quarantine (PPQ) service was created.

1971: USDA established the Animal and Plant Health Service (APHS).

1972: Meat and poultry inspection were transferred to the now-named Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS).

1984: A beagle became USDA’s first “detector dog”; other beagles and larger dogs are now part of the canine inspector ranks.

1991: PPQ began to deploy people overseas to work with foreign counterparts to ensure adherence to international plant health standards.

2000: Congress passed the Plant Protection Act, increasing PPQ’s authority to investigate and enforce standards, and increasing civil penalties for violations.

2002: Homeland Security Act transfers inspection responsibility from USDA APHIS to Department of Homeland Security Customs and Border Protection. APHIS retains policy setting and training roles. Congress passed the Animal Health Protection Act, strengthening the ability of USDA APHIS to prosecute individuals who smuggle any animals or animal products into the U.S.

2003: U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) began agricultural inspection services with approximately 1,573 agricultural specialists and 75 canine inspection teams from the USDA.

2011: Specific agriculture-related training modules were developed for Asian gypsy moth (AGM), khapra beetle and Asian citrus psyllid for the CBP cadre as well as trade and shipping representatives.

April 2012: CBP deployed approximately 2,360 agricultural specialists and 114 agriculture canine teams nationwide.

In 2011, CBP detected the beetle on more occasions than all other years combined. Detections in 2012 appear to be on a path to double the 2011 interception totals. One official credits this to increased training and information sharing between POEs on affected commodities.

CBP agriculture specialists in Buffalo, N.Y., detected stem and bulb nematode (a microscopic worm that primarily affects garlic and onions) in shipments entering the U.S. for planting in 2011. CBP sampled all garlic shipments for the presence of the nematode, and several infected shipments were stopped at the border.

Asian gypsy moth (AGM) feeds on the leaves of more than 500 agricultural and forest plant species. CBP agriculture specialists intercepted AGM egg masses on two merchant ships arriving from Japan at the Tacoma, Wash., POE in July 2012. Each of the masses contained hundreds of AGM eggs. AGM is known to exist in Japan; Japanese agriculture specialists had found six egg masses on the ship prior to its departure.

Asian citrus psyllid is an aphid-like insect that destroys citrus trees and citrus-like plants. It can carry the devastating bacterial Huanglongbing (HLB) disease, also known as citrus greening disease. In June 2008, the pest believed to exist in Mexico, was discovered in California. It has been intercepted in shipments of fruit, ornamentals, herbs and cut flowers. Unfortunately, the psyllid can also spread by flying. Ten U.S. states and three U.S. territories are now quarantined for the existence of Asian citrus psyllid.

Most CBP interceptions are considered to be unintentional. However, since September 11, 2001, the CBP agriculture specialists have also focused efforts on the deliberate introduction of these threats and have received specialized training to prepare for “agroterrorism” involving agricultural products.

Exporters, importers and producers can all help protect America’s agricultural interests by knowing and following U.S. phytosanitary measures for handling, packing, shipping, and receiving produce and products. The best information source with all APHIS regulations is online at

International travelers will find information about how to declare any possession of meats, fruits, vegetables, seeds, animals and animal products they are carrying and learn how important it is to disclose if they visited a farm or were in close proximity to any livestock while abroad at

CBP also relies on agricultural stakeholders to prevent the entry of prohibited plant and animal materials. Farmers become quasi-inspectors by monitoring their crops for the types of damage caused by various foreign pests and diseases. The USDA has created a free Save Our Citrus iPhone application for reporting and identifying citrus greening and three other leading diseases of citrus crops. Growers can report symptoms and upload photos for ID by citrus experts. Learn more at

The author is a freelance writer who keeps horses and sheep on a 100-acre farm in Mannsville, N.Y.

Career Opportunity: Agricultural Inspector

U.S. Customs and Border Protection agriculture specialists generally have academic degrees and expertise in the natural sciences, e.g., botany, entomology, plant pathology, agricultural, natural resource management or chemistry.

They possess a sharp-eyed ability to recognize the signs and symptoms of plant and animal pests and diseases, and questionable and dangerous items, while working in a fast-paced law enforcement setting. They act quickly to intercept threats to the health and safety of U.S. agricultural resources.

The specialists inspect both products and paperwork by using everything from a magnifying glass and microscope to X-ray machines and sophisticated software technology. They may use a hammer and chisel to check wood pallets for wood-boring insects or slice a cherry tomato with a knife to check for fruit-boring pests. They may work alone, in teams or with a canine partner.

As they inspect passengers and cargo, analyze documents and conduct interviews, CBP agriculture specialists interact with everyone from everyday travelers to commercial shippers and haulers. Some may act as liaisons working with ports of entry.

The specialists are trained in contraband detection, trade processing procedures, antiterrorism, and hazardous materials handling and safety.

To qualify to become an agricultural inspector, you must be a U.S. citizen-resident with a bachelor’s degree or higher and a valid driver’s license. Qualifications include computer literacy, physical fitness, and the willingness to wear a uniform, maintain mandated appearance standards, and perform overtime and shift work where assigned.

For initial appointments at the federal level, the salary range is approximately $31,315 to $47,448.

States also maintain their own border inspection services.