Foot-and-Mouth: Coming To an Airport Near You?

As the country buckles down under repeated government warnings of terrorist attacks from Al Qaeda and elsewhere, travelers arriving in the U.S. this summer will notice some big changes. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection service is taking inkless fingerprints and digital photos of visitors from all but 27 countries at many airports, checking that information against terrorist watch lists and verifying their visas. (By the end of September, air travelers from all countries will be digitally fingerprinted and photographed.) It is scanning suitcases, cars and commercial cargo for nuclear weapons. Foreign journalists who arrive here without special visas more than once are being deported. Over the Arizona border, two drone planes are tracking down illegal immigrants as they cross the desert at night. Shipments of food from manufacturers abroad who have not registered with the government and sent notice ahead of time are being denied entry under the F.D.A. provisions of the 2002 Bioterrorism Act.

That’s not all. At the Port of New York/New Jersey, the third largest in the country, strange new structures are rising: the steel outlines of drive-through nuclear-bomb scanners for containerized cargo. All trucks carrying containers out of the shipping terminal will be examined in these “portal radiation detectors” starting in several months. Scores are being built at the Elizabeth, N.J., port and at major airports, seaports and border crossings.

Customs and Border Protection, charged with stopping terrorists and their weapons from entering the U.S., was formed from the merger of immigration, customs, border-patrol and agriculture-inspection operations 14 months ago under the new Homeland Security Department.

Already, the agriculture inspectors are complaining. Among the 2,000 bug and plant experts happier looking for beetles than bombs, many are uneasy with the changes at the border, and some complain bitterly that Homeland Security’s counterterrorism mission hinders their enforcement of federal agriculture regulations.

By examining a small percentage of imports-ranging from dog chews to food, flowers and military equipment-and destroying diseased produce, fumigating or treating grains, plants and other produce (such as Mexican mangos) to kill pests, and enforcing the regulations aimed at barring foreign insects and animal and plant diseases, the inspectors have provided enough of a deterrent that the U.S. has been remarkably free of catastrophic outbreaks such as foot-and-mouth disease, which several years ago devastated Britain’s livestock and harmed its economy. And when outbreaks do happen, the inspectors contain them.

Now, some inspectors say, that vital function is taking a back seat to looking for terrorists, suspicious packages, W.M.D. and “agroterrorism”-the deliberate sabotage of the food supply. Under the 2002 Bioterrorism Act, 23 animal diseases are now termed “agrothreats.” No. 1 is foot-and-mouth disease.

“Because it spreads so rapidly, we’re considering it the worst at this point,” said C.B.P. spokeswoman Sue Challis. “And the economic implications are just so horrible.”

Others, like avian influenza, can spread from animals to people. Plant diseases such as plum pox are now considered agroterrorist weapons.

Before 9/11, said RAND Corporation agroterrorist expert Peter Chalk, the possibility that anyone would want to spoil the food supply in America wasn’t given much thought. Now, he says, there’s a growing appreciation of the U.S.’s vulnerability.

But, several New York–region C.B.P. officers say, the ranks of agriculture inspectors are stretched too thin and are too underfunded to keep the food supply safe.

One, requesting anonymity for fear of dismissal, offered to give an affidavit at a Congressman’s office so as to be covered by the federal Whistleblower Protection Act. “Homeland Security doesn’t want us talking to the press outside the script,” he said nervously.

“I don’t know if the agriculture industry knows what’s going on. Their first line of defense has melted away. We haven’t got the people to do the inspections, and we’re just waving cargo through,” he continued. “We’re courting an agriculture disaster.”

Contraband

In a room out of public view at a terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport some months ago, a huge table was piled with a deli’s worth of meats and sausage, canned hams from China, grape vines, raw eggs, wilted geraniums, shiny purple eggplants and a dozen bruised brown palm nuts from Nigeria-all seized from travelers’ suitcases and destined for the shredder.

Supervisor Fred Skolnick pulled on rubber gloves and picked up a snail. “Many types of snails and slugs carry nematodes that can attack the brain or the digestive system. If you contract these, you’re probably better off dead, because there’s no cure.” He chucked the snails into a grinder.

“Mostly we focus on viruses, because they aren’t always killed in food processing. This meat-which yesterday happened to come in from Europe-we intercepted for animal diseases like foot-and-mouth, which exists in some countries on the continent and also in Africa and Asia. Beef products from Europe can’t come in because of mad cow. And if you want to bring in grape vines or apples, pears and peaches, we’re not going to let you, because there’s about 20 latent viruses in those species-not to mention insect, bacterial and fungal pathogens as well. Our pest risk-assessment teams at the Department of Agriculture make the regs, and they change periodically relative to information about disease outbreaks world-wide.”

Outside, travelers from Asia milling around a baggage carousel hardly noticed a beagle in a “Protecting American Agriculture” vest trotting from bag to bag, sniffing. The beagle, one of several in canine teams at Kennedy, is trained to sniff out smuggled food. (Other dogs sniff out explosives and currency.) The dog gently pawed a young woman’s backpack and sat down. He’d found an orange. The woman’s customs declaration ticket was marked and the orange confiscated to prevent citrus canker entering the country.

In another terminal, Mr. Gomez, a heavyset Guianese in a T-shirt draped with a gold chain, protested as inspectors unzipped all 12 of his duffel bags, extracting enormous quantities of fresh thyme, basil and round red peppers, leaving the dried shrimp and wine. “He’s a courier,” explained inspector Tim Carroll.

Last time, Gomez brought 100 gutted iguanas. Bush meat is barred in case it carries Ebola, for example.

“Can’t I keep one little bag of herbs?” Gomez begged. Mr. Carroll said no. “We shake it and insects will fall out. When we walk into Waldbaum’s,” he said to a reporter, “the food is always there and the general public has no idea what it takes to keep it there. They think it falls out of heaven cellophane-wrapped. Want to terrorize this country? Take away its food.”

Underfunded and Overwhelmed

That is a risk now that passenger baggage inspections have been cut back by C.B.P., said Mike Randall, president of the small independent union National Association of Agriculture Employees, which represents all of the agriculture inspectors who were moved to Homeland Security.

“It’s terrible. They are not being permitted to do their jobs. There are places where there were five or six inspectors before, now they have one ag inspector as of the last few months,” and a dog to find smuggled goods. “What an inspector will tell you is that some agriculturally risky flights are ‘walking out the door.’ One of the ways we deter them is by applying fines. Now, customs-attendant paperwork may take 45 minutes to an hour to fill out, so no one-surprise-is issuing fines anymore.”

At Kennedy Airport, the largest airport gateway in the country for international arrivals, only one or two agriculture officials have been peering into passenger luggage on weekends and holidays.

Inspectors at Kennedy instead have been shifted to cargo inspections partly for counter-terrorism: The C.I.A. is believed to have decided that a nuclear bomb is more likely to come in the country concealed in a shipping container than in a missile strike, according to The New York Times . While moving around terminals checking cargo manifests and ripping open 1 or 2 percent of shipments to look for exotic insects and diseases, officials wear radiation pagers on their belts to scan cargo for radioactivity.

Even so, they are overwhelmed. About 300 C.B.P. agriculture inspector jobs are vacant nationwide; 33 of them at Kennedy reportedly. Airlines at Kennedy have complained that food imports and perishables are going to waste because there are too few agriculture inspectors to clear cargo. So, to keep up, some inspectors say they sign cargo out without proper examination.

Meanwhile, dangerous foreign insects and diseases are walking into the U.S. inside unchecked passenger bags, others say. “The last foot-and-mouth disease here was started by some jerk who slopped his hogs with pork sausage from Europe,” said an official. “Bottom line: The American taxpayer is getting screwed because formerly they were protected agriculturally and ecologically and that is not happening anymore. Homeland Security is significantly diminishing our coverage in baggage to save money at the larger airports. Customs is just not trained to do our job. Five years from now, maybe.”

“The ag inspection is a regulatory compliance inspection. It’s easygoing. We like you but maybe we don’t like the mango in your luggage.” Ag inspectors don’t want to be anti-terrorist, so teaming up with customs and immigration is hard, he maintained. About 500 inspectors and technicians have quit, retired or returned to the Agriculture Department since D.H.S. took over their teams.

The goal of “one face at the border,” given the culture clash and tensions in some ports between agriculture and customs, has been scaled back for now to a combined customs-immigration check and a second one by agriculture.

Cross-training is occurring, but in a minor way. More is promised, meanwhile all inspectors are required to know counterterrorism procedures.

“What’s going to be pounded into the work force is that their primary mission is anti-terrorism,” said Kennedy Airport agriculture-cargo supervisor Robert Redes, adding enforcing agricultural regulations is now secondary. The training is inadequate, according to others. “The spin is that we are bioterrorist,” one inspector scoffed. “We were given an hour course on a CD-ROM on chemical and biological weapons. And we are slated for about five to six mini courses having to do with immigration and customs inspections.”

“I’m looking out for terrorists and weapons of mass destruction that I haven’t a clue about,” said another. “Please! I don’t know anything about pink powders.”

“I don’t see how I can help with this new problem,” said Edwin Concepcion, a third inspector whose background is plant science. “I don’t know anything about W.M.D. and maybe I can’t run so well.”

More agroterrorism training is coming this year, said Sue Challis, a C.B.P. spokesperson in Washington.

Facilities like the New York/New Jersey port report fewer problems in changing to Homeland Security management. “This is probably the only port in the country where we have one face at the border,” said deputy chief inspector for customs James Frawley. The port and area directors are “very receptive to agriculture’s concerns,” added C.B.P. supervisor Basil Liakakos, and that’s the difference. “I’m not going to tell you that this is case across the country.”

The supervisors touted C.B.P.’s automated targeting systems (A.T.S.) as an example of the “force multiplier” security advantages gained by the merger of customs, immigration and agriculture border watchers.

A.T.S. scrubs electronic shipping manifests for anomalies with algorithms and intel to pick which of the millions of cargo shipments every year warrant further inspection. Agriculture officials will use A.T.S. to check agriculture imports if they pass background security checks.

“If one is looking at the general push to upgrade border inspections, certain moves are being undertaken,” said RAND analyst Peter Chalk. “But when one looks at the volume coming in, to rely on integrated inspections is not particularly useful. You can’t deal with this problem with border defenses. You need the ability for in-country response. Animal- and plant-inspection officials are deployed with customs officials to check produce coming into the country, but the extent to which customs officials know much about what is going on is debatable and there is a lack of personnel from agriculture to A) inspect all the entry points and B) to inspect the imports. My point is to rely on extensive border security at the expense of upgrading response and preparedness measures within the country is a misallocation of resources.”

The rub constantly debated, said Kennedy airport agriculture-cargo supervisor Redes, is, do agriculture inspections fit in Homeland Security? No, said Mr. Randall, the union president. They should be returned to agriculture. “There’s a general unhappiness among agriculture inspectors everywhere,” he went on. “They have a top-down management style, there is very little ag infrastructure at C.P.B., and there’s new directives everyday.

“We didn’t hire on for this militaristic job. I believe we had convinced the House Agriculture Committee that it was a bad idea to split the agriculture inspection service apart [sending border inspectors to Homeland Security], but at the last minute there were orders from the top of the administration that D.O.A. must be split in order for Customs and Border Protection to stay one face at the border.”

A solution won’t be debated, he concluded, “until there is an agriculture disaster as a result of some action or inaction of C.B.P.”

There has been “a lot of whining and sobbing,” acknowledged C.B.P. spokesperson Sue Challis, “because change is scary. At some ports, it was very segmented before. Ag didn’t talk to customs and customs didn’t talk to immigration. Some people will never smile about it. This is where we are and we have to concentrate on it.”