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Bill authorizes more ag inspectors at ports of entry

Bipartisan bill authorizes hiring 240 agricultural specialists a year until 700-person workforce shortage is filled.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Customs & Border Protection (CBP) work together to facilitate the safe and secure entry of agricultural goods into the U.S. However, according to CBP estimates, there currently is a shortage of nearly 700 inspectors across the country.

New legislation looks to put more boots on the ground in an effort to increase domestic food safety; it would fully staff America’s airports, seaports and land ports of entry by authorizing additional agricultural inspectors to prevent the intentional or unintentional entry of harmful plants, food, animals and goods into the U.S.

The Protecting America’s Food & Agriculture Act of 2019, introduced by U.S. Sens. Gary Peters (D., Mich.), ranking member of the Senate Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs Committee; Pat Roberts (R., Kan.); John Cornyn (R., Texas), and Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.), authorizes the hiring of 240 agricultural specialists a year until the workforce shortage is filled and 200 agricultural technicians a year to carry out administrative and support functions.

The program’s agricultural specialists and canine units conduct inspections of foreign passengers, commercial vessels, trucks, aircraft and railcars at U.S. ports of entry to protect public health and safety by preventing the entry of harmful goods and invasive species that may pose a threat to American food and agriculture. On a typical day, those inspectors process more than 1 million passengers and 78,000 truck, rail and sea containers carrying goods worth approximately $7.2 billion.

In March, agricultural inspectors and their canine teams seized nearly 1 million lb. of illegal pork products smuggled from China, whose domestic herds have tested positive for African swine fever (ASF).

The bill also authorizes the training and assignment of 20 new canine teams a year, which have proven valuable in detecting illicit fruits, vegetables and animal products that may have otherwise been missed in initial inspections.

Finally, the bill authorizes supplemental appropriations each year to pay for the activities of the agriculture specialists, technicians and canine teams.

“Every day, millions of pounds of produce, meat and other agricultural goods enter the United States through our nation’s ports of entry,” Peters said. “Agricultural inspectors are responsible for ensuring these goods move efficiently across our borders while safeguarding against harmful pests, diseases and even potential bioterrorism attacks. 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.”

Roberts, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, noted: “Devastating diseases and pests are just one plane or boat ride away from causing havoc for American agriculture. Thus, diligence by the Customs & Border Patrol agriculture specialists is vital to a safe and affordable food supply. This bipartisan legislation helps to ensure that our borders are properly staffed and resourced to protect U.S. agriculture -- the backbone of our national economy.”

Stabenow, ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, added, “We rely on agricultural inspectors at our borders to protect the safety of our food supply. It’s critical that we address the shortage of agriculture specialists and hire qualified staff to safeguard our food and farms.”

The legislation is supported by a broad coalition of groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, American Farm Bureau Federation, National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU), Border Trade Alliance, National Association of State Departments of Agriculture (NASDA), National Pork Producers Council (NPPC), Michigan Farm Bureau, Michigan Agri-Business Assn. and Michigan Pork Producers.

“This bipartisan legislation would help fill a critical gap at our country’s ports of entry. Agriculture specialists, technicians and canine teams root out, identify and stop invasive pests and other dangers to our nation’s farms and green spaces,” NTEU president Tony Reardon said. “NTEU strongly supports this bipartisan bill and thanks Sen. Peters and Sen. Roberts for taking action to increase the numbers of employees at our ports who serve as the last defense against the accidental or deliberate introduction into our country of pests and plants that do not belong here.”

“The last several months have demonstrated how critically important well-resourced ports of entry are to the nation’s economic health. The Border Trade Alliance applauds this effort to ensure that ever-increasing volumes of cross-border agriculture trade can be processed securely and efficiently at our ports by highly trained CBP agriculture specialists,” said Britton Clarke, president of the Border Trade Alliance. “This is important legislation, and we thank Sen. Peters and Sen. Roberts for their good work to address this important staffing need.”

NASDA chief executive officer Dr. Barb Glenn, added, “Invasive species have been estimated to cost the U.S. economy more than $120 billion annually, with more than half of that amount representing damage to American agriculture. NASDA strongly supports funding for additional staff and canine units to enhance and maintain a framework designed to protect our nation’s food and agriculture through education, research, prevention, monitoring and control. We thank Sen. Gary Peters and agriculture committee chairman Pat Roberts for introducing this bill.”

“Preventing the spread of African swine fever and other foreign animal diseases to the United States is our top priority,” NPPC president David Herring said. “We appreciate all that the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Customs & Border Protection are doing to strengthen biosecurity at our borders. To further safeguard American agriculture, we need additional agriculture inspectors at our sea and airports. This essential legislation will help address the current inspection shortfall, reduce the risk of ASF and other foreign animal diseases and protect the food supply for U.S. consumers.”

John Kran, national legislative counsel for the Michigan Farm Bureau, also applauded the bill's introduction, noting, “Invasive species like spotted wing drosophila and the brown marmorated stink bug are just two examples of non-native pests that have created havoc for Michigan farmers over the last few years. This bill will expand and enhance border inspections and provide farmers with another level of protection from foreign pests that negatively impact both farmers and the consumers they feed.”

“Customs & Border Protection’s agricultural inspectors are the first line of defense against imported products that may contain diseases, invasive species or other threats that pose a multibillion-dollar risk to Michigan’s agricultural markets,” Jim Byrum, president of the Michigan Agri-Business Assn., said. “The Protecting America’s Food & Agricultural Act of 2019 will help reduce this risk to the agricultural economy in Michigan and across the country by addressing long-standing shortages at our nation’s ports of entry. We are supportive of this bill and applaud Sen. Peters for his leadership on this issue.”

Mary Kelpinksi, CEO of the Michigan Pork Producers Assn., explained that due to the ASF outbreak "in China and many other countries around the world, U.S. border safeguards are more important than ever to protect America’s food supply. Border security professionals must have the resources necessary to carry out this critical mission and protect our nation from contaminated or fraudulent imports. This commonsense legislation will help ensure our farmers can continue to produce the highest-quality products — without fear that foreign imports will compromise the quality of U.S. goods.”

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