One Downside of Homeland Security Department: Agricultural Inspection Gets Lost

May 23--WASHINGTON -- Creation of the new Department of Homeland Security may have rendered American agriculture even more vulnerable to foreign pests, government investigators warn in a new report.

Agricultural inspections dropped after the bureaucratic reshuffling, sometimes dramatically, at ports including San Francisco, Los Angeles and Miami. Equally worrisome, inspectors at some prominent entry points including New York have been less successful in their searches once they started wearing new uniforms.

"It's indeed troubling," Joel Nelsen, president of the Exeter-based California Citrus Mutual, said Monday. "Unfortunately, the good intentions haven't turned into reality here."

In San Francisco, for instance, inspectors checked out 40 percent of the cargo and passengers arriving before the 2003 creation of the Department of Homeland Security.

Within the next two years, San Francisco's average inspection rate dropped by over half -- to 19 percent.

One-third of the inspectors surveyed nationwide reported they were doing "many fewer" agricultural inspections than before they became part of the Department of Homeland Security.

The inspections themselves often draw a blank, which is not necessarily good news. While some ports showed marked improvement, some did not. New York's pest interception rate, for instance, fell from 18 percent of inspections to 10 percent of inspections.

"U.S. agriculture is vulnerable to the unintentional or deliberate introduction of foreign pests and diseases," Government Accountability Office investigators noted.

Agriculture and Homeland Security officials largely conceded the criticisms have merit, and stressed the improvements they are making.

"We also believe the report accurately captures some of the key operational challenges facing the two departments," Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns stated.

The Department of Homeland Security, in its official response, likewise acknowledged that it "agrees with the overall substance and findings of the report."

Citing persistent "management and coordination problems," the GAO report is the latest to shine a largely unflattering spotlight on one of President Bush's signature accomplishments: the 2003 creation of the Department of Homeland Security.

With 180,000 employees, the department is supposed to manage everything from hurricane relief and firefighter grants to keeping avian flu and foot-and-mouth disease out of the United States. It's a huge job, particularly for the 1,800 agricultural inspectors who were transferred from the Agriculture Department into the new Customs and Border Protection agency.

Every day, U.S. borders are crossed by some 1.1 million pedestrians and car passengers, 235,000 international air passengers and 69,000 truck, sea and rail containers. On an average day, inspectors will seize 1,145 prohibited plant or animal materials.

Farmers worried from the start that they would be shortchanged by the new bureaucracy, particularly as experienced Agriculture Department inspectors retired rather than work for the Department of Homeland Security.

San Francisco, for instance, lost 19 agriculture inspectors since 2003 and had 24 vacancies last year.

"You had your seasoned veterans step aside, and green recruits come in trying to do the job," Nelsen said.

Nationwide, 42 percent of the inspectors surveyed said there were "definitely not" enough inspectors on the border.

The workers periodically complain of low morale, with one member of the National Association of Agricultural Employees, speaking on condition of anonymity, advising The Bee that "we make do with supervisors who do not understand, like or tolerate the agriculture inspection process; to them, agriculture inspection is a joke, commonly referred to as the 'potato police.' "

There have been some improvements, including the hiring of 630 additional agricultural inspectors.

Border personnel are getting more agriculture-related training, and new agricultural liaisons have been assigned to every district field office nationwide.

The Department of Homeland Security has improved targeting of agricultural inspections. Interception rates have jumped at ports including Seattle, Boston and Baltimore, suggesting that inspectors are focusing better.

Nonetheless, problems recur, some a result of strained resources.

The 140 agriculture canine teams operating under the Agriculture Department have since shrunk to about 80 teams operated by Customs and Border Protection.

Still other problems result more directly from the collision of two bureaucracies. Customs and Border Protection officials, for instance, don't yet have a complete listing of e-mail addresses for agriculture inspectors, complicating efforts to send out crucial warnings.

"One inspector expressed dismay that specialists at the port to which he had recently transferred were unaware of new regulations for conducting inspections to safeguard against avian influenza," the investigators noted.

<<Sacramento Bee, The (CA) (KRT) -- 05/24/06>>