U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) agricultural specialists undergo extensive training in order to identify dangerous species and diseases carried on international cargo and prevent them from entering the country.
The world is full of hungry pests and noxious weeds that if left unchecked could quickly decimate the nation’s agricultural crops and forests.
Standing in the way of these tiny invaders at U.S. land, sea and airports, however, is a group of specially trained Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers ready to stop them in their tracks. They are the agency’s agriculture specialists.
Armed with real-time pest-related product and shipment origin intelligence from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), as well as CBP’s own Automated Commercial Environment (ACE), these ag specialists are able to quickly zero in on those inbound cargoes with potential pests.
If APHIS receives a pest alert from an overseas plant protection agency, the information is electronically transmitted to the CBP ag specialists at the relevant ports of entry.
on the water
are identified. The protocols
begin immediately. We just
do it. That’s the beauty of this
system—how it works from
agency to agency.”
executive director, Agriculture
Programs and Trade Liaison, U.S.
Customs and Border Protection (CBP)
“In the case of maritime shipments, all cans on the water are identified,” Kevin Harriger, executive director of CBP’s Agriculture Programs and Trade Liaison, said in an interview. “The protocols begin immediately. We just do it. That’s the beauty of this system—how it works from agency to agency.”
Targeted Inspection. Over the decades, APHIS’s Plant Protection and Quarantine Branch has built an extensive database of pests. This information has evolved into a substantive risk management tool to more efficiently target pests at the ports, since it’s impossible for APHIS or CBP to inspect every shipment.
For example, it’s known that tile shipments may harbor pests. When prepared for shipping, tiles are often separated by wood packaging, covered with plastic shrink-wrap, and placed on pallets, offering a perfect environment for wood borers, snails and beetles.
“We have developed the associations with certain commodities and pests related to them,” Harriger said.
When a pest is detected, CBP places a hold on the shipment while samples are sent to the APHIS Plant and Quarantine Branch to determine the next steps, which may include fumigation, destruction or immediate re-export of the shipment.
In the maritime environment, the ship itself may be the conduit for an inadvertent pest introduction. That’s been the case with the formidable Asian gypsy moth.
When ships dock at ports in the Russian Far East and Northern Asia, they are susceptible to nighttime visits from the moths. Attracted to a ship’s lights, the moths can lay multitudes of eggs on the superstructure, bulk heads and cargoes in a matter of minutes.
“They will get on anything from steel [to] automobiles and containers,” Harriger said. Asian gypsy moths are highly destructive to forests, and interdicting them is a top priority for CBP ag specialists in the Pacific Northwest in particular. Here again, however, it’s inefficient for the officers to visit every transpacific ship entering a U.S. West Coast port to search for these moths. The good news is the agency’s targeting systems have evolved to the point where CBP ag specialists can now focus on specific transpacific ships based on where they’ve docked and loaded cargoes overseas prior to their arrival at the first U.S. port of entry. When it’s determined that a ship must be inspected for Asian gypsy moths, the CBP ag specialists know exactly where to look for the egg masses. Depending on the level of risk, these vessel inspections can be completed within one to two hours, Harriger said.
CBP ag specialists are even responsible for ensuring pests aren’t introduced through the food stores, as well as garbage, on board international aircraft and ships.
Some shipments of concern are concentrated on particular holidays. In the weeks leading up to All Souls Day on Nov. 2, for example, CBP steps up its watch along the southern border with Mexico for travelers entering the United States with prohibited agricultural holiday decorations.
Many families along the southern border celebrate this holiday by constructing altars to commemorate the lives of loved ones or famous individuals that have died. A common ornamental greenery known as Murraya, or orange jasmine, is often used to construct these altars. But Murraya is a known host plant for an Asian citrus insect that has been linked to citrus greening disease and is therefore prohibited from entry into the United States.
Citrus greening was first detected in the United States in 2005 in Florida’s Miami-Dade County. According to the USDA, the disease has also seriously affected citrus production in India, Asia, Southeast Asia, the Arabian Peninsula and Africa.
And a CBP ag specialist doesn’t even necessarily need to be present to make an initial pest detection. All of the agency’s nearly 23,000 officers receive some training on what to look for. If an officer who is involved with a narcotics inspection spots a tiny pile of sawdust under a pallet, for example, he or she will call in an ag specialist to further investigate the potential for wood borers.
Custom Curriculum. As international trade has grown, so has the potential for invasive species to enter the country, and there have been examples of serious outbreaks during the past 30 years with links to freight as the conduit.
In the mid-1990s, Florida citrus groves were attacked by citrus canker from South America. The wood-boring Asian longhorned beetle from China has been responsible for killing numerous trees in the New York and Chicago areas since the mid-1990s, which was quickly followed by an infestation of emerald ash borers. Once these pests establish a presence in the ecosystem, it’s nearly impossible to eradicate them, making it that much more important that they be prevented from entering the country in the first place.
On a typical day in 2016, CBP’s 2,416 ag specialists were credited with discovering 404 pests at U.S. ports of entry and referring 4,638 potential pest-carrying materials, including plants, meat, animal byproducts and soil, for quarantine.
After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. government heightened its effort to protect the country’s agricultural and forest industries from intentional introductions of harmful pests and diseases. In March 2003, the Bush administration ordered APHIS, as part of the “One Face at the Border” initiative, to transfer its 1,800 inspectors from USDA to the Department of Homeland Security to become Customs ag specialists.
In May 2004, CBP assumed responsibility for training all new ag specialists. New hires must have a four-year college degree in science, along with some work experience. These individuals come from a variety of fields, including agriculture, natural resources management and veterinary medicine, Harriger said.
However, like all new entrants to CBP, these individuals must attend three weeks of pre-academy on homeland security. The trainees are next sent to Frederick, Md., west of Washington, D.C., where they attend 34 training days of specialized instruction at USDA’s Plant Protection and Quarantine Professional Development Center.
Each class consists of up to 24 trainees. These individuals must learn to efficiently identify noxious weeds, harmful insects, plant pathogens and microscopic nematodes, as well as receive basic instruction on how to assess agricultural goods transported by passengers and in freight.
“We train the trainees on how to use keys to identify different insects and plant diseases,” said Kyle Hegamyer, APHIS supervisory training specialist at the Professional Development Center in Frederick.
To graduate from the program, the trainee must have a minimum 80 percent pass rate. If they do not pass, there’s a remediation period and opportunity to retest. However, the washout rate for the program remains extremely low, according to Harringer, mostly due to the level of prerequisites for the candidates to participate.
By August, the Professional Development Center had graduated its 86th class of CBP ag specialists. Of the currently more than 2,400 ag specialists in the field, Harriger said 67 percent were brought on board after the merger of APHIS’s cargo inspectors with CBP.
After completing their instruction at the Professional Development Center, the newly minted ag specialists must complete another 33 days at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco, Ga., where they are trained in law enforcement techniques.
The ag specialist then receives a port assignment where he or she must complete an intensive post-academy curriculum in port-specific training. This includes instruction not only on pests specific to that port of entry environment, but also on secondary inspections and processing, CBP information systems, safety and situational awareness, and enforcement and penalties.
The trainee is assigned to one of CBP’s roughly 200 ag specialists who serve as field training officers for 8.5 to 12 weeks, depending on the port. This on-the-job training ties together the basic training from the academy with the post-academy port-specific training.
“No other customs administration in the world has an agricultural component like U.S. Customs,” Harriger said. In other countries, “the agriculture layer is usually separate from customs functions.”
Throughout their careers, CBP ag specialists are required to routinely update their knowledge and skills by completing online training modules, some of which must be completed annually, depending on the port of entry.
CBP ag specialists have even played a role over the years in capturing and identifying previously unknown pests.
“We equate that to a hit like narcotics,” Harriger said. “That’s how big of a deal it is for us.”