Customs and Border Protection agricultural specialists, in conjunction with partner agencies, are working to stop a potentially devastating pathogen from entering the United States after its introduction to the Caribbean last year.
Nidhi Singla, Deputy Executive Director, Agriculture Programs and Trade Liaison, stressed during a media roundtable last week that CBP serves “a very critical role in securing our agriculture and natural resources to promote U.S. economy resilience and national security” along with partners and the public.
“Stationed at approximately 186 ports of entry are our specialized CBP agriculture specialists that are highly skilled frontline personnel that safeguard against the entry of plant pests and foreign animal diseases,” Singla said. “All of this is to ensure the safety of our nation’s trillion-dollar agricultural economy.”
APTL Branch Chief Adam Pitt said that the CBP agriculture specialists’ “last line of defense” is “more critical than ever” as one in five food items is now imported.
“During the winter months in the United States, nearly 80 percent of the fresh fruits and vegetables on our tables come from other countries. With the ever-increasing amount of trade, new pest and disease pathways are discovered and the agricultural risks to the United States continue to grow,” he said. “Speaking of threats to livestock, in Fiscal Year 2021 alone, CBP conducted over 630,000 positive passenger inspections, and within these inspections, there were 111,387 positive inspections of pork and pork products.”
CBP is alert on the defense against African Swine Fever, which currently has no cure and a mortality rate that can approach 100 percent. “If introduced to the U.S., it would thrust our swine industry into a dramatic downfall, leading to the loss of potentially billions of dollars to swine producers, and would adversely affect the economy as a result of reduced trade of U.S.-origin goods to countries around the world,” Pitt said. “The best way to prevent infection of pigs in the USA is to prevent the introduction of the ASF virus.”
“Through innovations like CBP One, CBP receives advanced information that is then layered with information from our partner government agencies to enhance our understanding of foreign animal disease threats such as ASF to inform our inspectional actions,” he added. “This is one of CBP’s layered approaches to conducting inspections at our nation’s ports of entry.”
Nicole L. Russo, director of Quarantine Policy, Analysis, and Support at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, emphasized that “the agricultural mission is a true partnership between Customs and Border Protection and the USDA.”
“There are also no treatments and there are no vaccines. Protecting the domestic swine industry is of critical importance,” she said of African Swine Fever. “I want to be very clear that ASF does not affect human health and it cannot be transmitted from pigs to humans. It is not a food safety issue. But it is of significant concern to our swine producers and those exporters of swine products.” Spread of the fever in parts of Europe and Asia has led to “tremendous losses in production.”
Last year, the USDA confirmed African Swine Fever’s presence in the Western Hemisphere for the first time, in the Dominican Republic and Haiti.
“Strict biosecurity measures are essential to prevent the introduction and spread of the virus throughout pig populations,” Russo said. “One of the more critical pathways for introductions of pest disease is the passenger environment. International travelers may unknowingly carry disease back into the United States. For example, ASF can be carried on clothing, on footwear, and on your hands.”
“Some food items may also carry disease that threaten domestic agricultural livestock. And not all travelers know which items can be brought back into the United States and which cannot.” APHIS and CBP have several websites “devoted to guidance for international travelers on what products can and can’t be brought back into the country,” and specifically for African Swine Fever APHIS has worked with CBP to “increase screenings of international arrivals and to increase outreach to the traveling public.”
“One of the things that is very important for travelers to do is to declare if they have agricultural products or have visited farms during their travels so they can ensure nothing they are bringing back with them poses a risk,” Russo said.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Senior Wildlife Inspector Daniel Sahakian said public outreach is critical in helping stop prohibited items from entering the country.
“You know, travelers need to be aware when they’re traveling abroad, what are you purchasing? Where is it coming from? The tagline ‘buyer beware,’ we say sometimes, you know? When you’re buying those trinkets at the store, when you’re bringing that food home that your family member made for you, just kind of think of where is this from? Where did it come from? Is it sustainable and are there any disease or risks that could be involved in this?” Sahakian said. “That’s one of the best ways to combat any international trade of illegal items is to make sure it doesn’t come here in the first place.”
CBP detection dogs are also key to intercepting threats by “screening passengers to prevent the introduction of harmful plant pests and foreign animal diseases from entering the United States,” APTL Branch Chief Tasha Mashburn said.
“The agriculture canines, coupled with our partnership between both USDA and the Fish and Wildlife Service, are the pillars to CBP ‘s layered approach to risk mitigation,” she said. “In addition to employing risk-based strategies, we rely on our partnership with the traveling public. As you arrive from your foreign destination, you can utilize applications such as CBP One to request to CBP exam of your agriculture items, as well as inspections of any pets that may be traveling with you.”