Before a congressional committee yesterday, one of the government's top agricultural watchdogs testified that the nation's vulnerability to foreign pests has increased since a transfer of inspection responsibilities from the Department of Agriculture (USDA) to Customs and Border Protection (CBP).
Lisa Shames, director of Natural Resources and Environment for the Government Accountability Office, said that a recent survey conducted of employees transferred to CBP from the agricultural quarantine inspection program (AQI) of the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) since 2003 said that the program has been "compromised" by the shift.
Under the AQI program, "international passengers and cargo are inspected at U.S. ports of entry to seize prohibited material and intercept foreign agricultural pests," said Shames.
The program, she says, is the first line of defense for the nation's largest industry and employer. The agricultural sector is responsible for $1 trillion worth of economic activity per year.
But inspections have suffered, according to employees, since AQI was rolled into the CBP due to the Homeland Security Act of 2002, which identified the agricultural sector as a target for terrorism.
Although 86 percent of agriculture specialists reported feeling very well prepared or somewhat prepared for their duties, 59 and 60 percent of specialists answered that they were conducting fewer inspections and interceptions, respectively, of prohibited agricultural items since the transfer. When asked what is going well with respect to their work, agriculture specialists identified working relationships (18 percent), nothing (13 percent), salary and benefits (10 percent), training (10 percent), and general job satisfaction (6 percent). When asked what areas should be changed or improved, they identified working relationships (29 percent), priority given to the agriculture mission (29 percent), problems with the CBP chain of command (28 percent), training (19 percent), and inadequate equipment and supplies (17 percent).
Although actions were taken to strengthen the AQI program by APHIS and CBP since the merger, Shames said that management problems still expose the United States to the scourge of foreign pests. These problems include not developing performance measures for AQI, allowing the agricultural canine program to unravel, and not hiring enough staff to do inspections properly and fully.
To improve the AQI program, the GAO recommends adopting adequate performance measures to assess the program's effectiveness and developing a risk based staffing model.
The CBP and the APHIS agreed with the recommendations.