The federal agencies responsible for inspecting agricultural imports at national ports of entry lack sufficient staff and training, in part because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and have failed to document progress on their own strategic plan.
These are among the findings of a Government Accountability Office report on imported agriculture inspections, released Tuesday.
USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) develops the standards for port inspections, which aim to reduce the risk of pests and pathogens entering the country and infecting crops or livestock. The Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) employs most of the people who conduct the inspections. The two agencies have a joint task force that wrote a 2014-2019 strategic plan, which the GAO report calls “outdated.”
While the two agencies collaborated on the strategic plan, the report found officials from each one had different assessments of their progress. And GAO said that lack of progress reports makes it difficult to determine the plan's success. It recommends the leaders of CBP and APHIS include plans for periodic progress reports when they update the strategic plan.
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The pandemic impacted training of new hires, contributing to CBP's reporting it did not have enough fully trained employees to conduct agricultural inspections. The drop in passenger traffic during COVID-19 lockdowns diminished the impact of these training delays, and APHIS has now developed some virtual trainings. New hires who will work with canines will still be able to receive certain training only in-person.
The Department of Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service cooperates on agricultural import inspections when wildlife is detected, and the GAO report found improved communication between FWS and CBP would help when those collaborations are needed.
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