WASHINGTON, DC – U.S. Senators Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii), Susan M. Collins (R-Maine), Dianne Feinstein (D-California), and Kirsten E. Gillibrand (D-New York) released a U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report entitled, Homeland Security: Agriculture Inspection Program Has Made Some Improvements but Management Challenges Persist (GAO-12-885).  GAO conducted a follow-up review of its 2006 report on the issue and a survey on agriculture specialists’ and supervisors’ view about their work. 

GAO found that the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) continue to struggle with previously identified problems that could increase our nation’s vulnerability to foreign pests and disease or delay international trade. 
Senator Akaka said: “The agricultural inspection mission is vital to protecting our natural resources and agriculture from the introduction of foreign pests and disease.  Failure to prevent their entry could have serious economic consequences for our country.  While the GAO report shows that CBP and APHIS have made some progress over the past few years, critical vulnerabilities remain.  It is clear that more attention must be placed on agricultural inspection operations, specifically on ensuring that CBP has sufficient resources and the personnel needed to effectively defend our nation against harmful pests and disease.  I urge CBP and APHIS to fully implement GAO’s recommendations.”

Senator Collins said: “We need a robust program at our borders to protect the nation from harmful pests, plant and animal diseases, and biological threats.   According to DHS, invasive species cause an estimated $136 billion in lost agricultural revenue per year and the possible of deliberate introduction remains heightened in this post 9/11 environment.  It is encouraging that GAO found improvements with information sharing and certain agriculture inspection management functions; however, it is troubling that we are not further along.  Coordination between DHS and USDA must be seamless in order to endure the security of our nation’s agriculture.”

Senator Feinstein said: “The Department of Homeland Security in 2008 assured me that Customs and Border Patrol would prioritize agriculture inspections. This latest GAO report proves that has not happened.  I believe a standalone Office of Agriculture Inspection-either within DHS or back at USDA-is the only way agriculture inspectors will receive the tools they need to combat invasive pests and diseases. I plan to fight for the creation of this office and the funds necessary to quickly stand it up.”

The GAO study revealed that DHS and USDA have improved information-sharing and the transfer of Agriculture Quarantine Inspection (AQI) program user fees that are collected for AQI services; however DHS and USDA continue to face challenges in:

  • Developing effective performance measures to determine progress made toward mission goals
  • Establishing a national risk-based staffing model to ensure that high risk ports are adequately staffed
  • Ensuring supervisors are trained to manage agriculture canine teams
  • Revising user fees to cover programs costs

The GAO’s survey responses showed that CBP agriculture specialists and supervisors believe that training and information-sharing have improved, but remained concerned about:

  • CBP’s chain of command due to poor communication regarding internal policies, supervisors’ lack of agriculture experience, and the need for an agriculture chain of command separate from CBP
  • Competing priorities preventing them from performing their tasks and not having enough time to complete work
  • Their work not respected by CBP management
  • The lack of a career ladder for agriculture specialists supervisors and salary and benefits

GAO recommended that the Secretaries of Homeland Security and Agriculture:

  • Develop a strategic plan that establishes a joint mission and program goals
  • Identify performance measures for monitoring progress toward those goals
  • Improve the reliability of data regarding arrivals, inspections, and interceptions across ports
Additionally, GAO recommended that the Secretary of Homeland Security in consultation with USDA (1) ensure that the data regarding the agriculture canine program is reliable; (2) develop a plan or strategy that identifies the risk of potential fiscal constraints and determine the actions needed to mitigate that risk on sufficiently staffing ports with agriculture specialists; and (3) work with port directors to ensure that agriculture canine supervisors who have not participated in canine training or do not have experience working with canines get the training needed. 

USDA and DHS concurred with GAO’s recommendations.

Senator Akaka is Chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs’ Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management, the Federal Workforce, and the District of Columbia.

A copy of the GAO report is available at http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-12-885.