Internal USDA report calls for APHIS changes to reduce animal disease risks

By Jon H. Harsch

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.

Washington, Sept. 9 – A USDA Office of Inspector General (OIG) report charges that lax USDA controls over live animal imports have “significantly increased the risk that infected animals could enter the country undetected through quarantine facilities.” The report points out that “In two instances, we found that birds infected with Exotic Newcastle Disease and at least one horse infected with Contagious Equine Metritis had entered the country and spread the diseases to other animals.”

USDA Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) Administrator Cindy Smith responded to the scathing OIG report by accepting its recommendations. But her promise to implement OIG's recommendations for new controls along with enforcing existing regulations includes delays of over six months before some changes will be in place. Even longer term, Smith agrees on the need to increase user fees to fully cover the costs of operating the APHIS Animal Import Centers and pay for long-overdue maintenance. But she doesn't expect the new fees to take effect until 2013 because “Based upon the time requirements for such a rulemaking, APHIS estimates that the new fees will be implemented for fiscal year 2013.”

One clear challenge to APHIS is the sheer volume of animal imports. Based on its audit fieldwork conducted from July 2008 to January 2010, OIG notes that for fiscal year 2008, “APHIS monitored the importation of 24 million animals, 165,000 of which – mostly horses and birds – came from 68 high-risk countries where there was concern that an animal disease was present in the population.”

The OIG report cites instances of APHIS employees who said they weren't following APHIS requirements because either they were unaware of the requirements, considered the requirements unnecessary, felt they lacked legal authority, or lacked funding to pay for implementation. The report makes clear that proper implementation is essential because “The possibility that a foreign animal with a disease might infect the domestic animal population is a serious concern.” It points out that “In 2007, the Australian government and that country’s horse industry lost over $500 million when a single imported horse spread Equine Influenza to its domestic horses. In the same year, the United Kingdom experienced an outbreak of Foot and Mouth Disease that shut down beef exports for more than a year.”

Among problems identified in the OIG report:

  • Regarding the the requirement that APHIS staff review import permits and health certificates, “We found problems with these controls for 53 of 131 shipments selected for review. APHIS import center and port staff did not (1) follow permit instructions which required the shipments to be monitored while they were being transferred from ports-of-entry to the quarantine facility, (2) ensure that health certificates included all required information about the animals, or (3) record the correct country of origin on the permit application for some shipments.”

  • At three of the four airports we visited, APHIS port staff did not follow proper sanitation procedures since they did not ensure that aircraft cargo areas and transport equipment were cleaned and disinfected, and non-APHIS personnel were wearing protective clothing. We observed individuals in shorts and sandals handling foreign animals bound for quarantine facilities. Proper sanitation procedures are important to prevent the spread of foreign animal disease beyond the port-of-entry.”

  • Making it impossible to know if any birds had escaped from quarantine, “five of the six private facilities we visited were not adequately accounting for birds brought into quarantine.”

  • APHIS area officials were not aware of deficiencies at either type of quarantine facility [USDA or private] because APHIS did not require them to review, and had not itself reviewed, animal import center operations or their oversight of private quarantine facilities since 2005.”

  • In the case of one shipment of 2,400 birds infected with Exotic Newcastle Disease, unacceptable risks were created because APHIS port staff “stated that they were unaware of any requirement to monitor in-transit shipments.”

  • Our visits uncovered two conditions that increase the risk that foreign disease will enter the country and adversely impact our nation’s bovine, equine, or bird populations. Those conditions involved APHIS port staff who did not clean and disinfect aircraft cargo areas and transport equipment, and non-APHIS officials who were not wearing protective gear to prevent the spread of infectious diseases.”

  • Our visits to APHIS animal import centers and agency-approved private quarantine facilities disclosed serious physical security deficiencies. These included inadequate entry and exit doors; inadequate screens over windows and doors; individuals who were not showering as they entered and exited facilities; and contractors that were not disinfecting their vehicles before they drove those vehicles outside the facility.”

  • In addition, five of the six private facilities we visited were not adequately accounting for birds brought into quarantine.”

  • APHIS import center officials were aware of the violations at private quarantine facilities, but had not enforced agency policies because in their view the violations were minor in nature.”

  • These deficiencies increase the risk that foreign animal diseases will escape quarantine facilities and infect the nation’s domestic animal population.”

  • We brought our observations of private bird quarantine facilities to the attention of the two APHIS import center directors responsible for these facilities. One stated that he was aware of the conditions, but did not believe them to be serious or directly related to the spread of disease. The other director stated that he followed the same process as his predecessor, which was to allow some violations of agency requirements because APHIS’ facilities could not handle the volume of imported birds.”

  • In our view, the lack of compliance by import center officials and oversight by area officials has significantly increased the risk that animals or disease could spread outside the facilities.”

  • In the case of quarantined birds infected with Exotic Newcastle Disease, “65 birds were unaccounted for by the private facility and APHIS. An APHIS import center official stated that those 65 birds listed on the shipping documents must not have been shipped. However, he did not provide any evidence to support his assertion. In our view, since the birds were not counted when they entered the private facility, it is not possible to determine if any diseased birds escaped from quarantine.”

Responding to the OIG's bio-security recommendations, APHIS promised to correct problems “by March 31, 2011, to ensure sufficient time to conduct a complete review and develop clear and consistent policies that can be appropriately implemented.” Criticizing APHIS for not providing “timely”deadlines for implementing all recommendations, the OIG report concluded that APHIS in some cases has “not yet decided how to implement all of the recommendations, including some critical ones such as performing site visits to private facilities and reviewing of the procedures used by State agencies to approve facilities. Further, they had no timeframe for implementing the recommendations.”

To read the complete 39-page OIG report on “USDA's Controls over Animal Import Centers,” go to:

To return to the News Index page, click: