If you fly on an airplane, then you have experienced firsthand how U.S. security priorities changed following 9/11. A huge new agency, the Department of Homeland Security, was created and given broad powers to stop terrorist threats. Passengers were treated to body imaging, patdowns and a thicket of regulations governing what they can and can’t pack for the trip. However, according to a investigative story by AP writer Tracie Cone, there’s one type of foreign threat that became more successful at sneaking in: exotic plant pests and pathogens. Inspections of incoming food and plant material became less than thorough after priorities changed. USDA inspectors were reassigned en masse to the Department of Homeland Security and forced to operate in a different environment. Among the revelations:
- According to Cone, “Agriculture supervisors were replaced in the chain of command by officials unfamiliar with crop science. Hundreds of inspectors resigned, retired or transferred to other agencies. Some of the inspectors who remained on the job lost their offices and desks and were forced to work out of the trunks of their cars.”
- The enforcement shift had a measurable effect on the number of exotic pests that made it into the U.S., from eight in 1999 to 30 as recently as last year.
- An inspector who intercepted 350 canker-infested citrus cuttings, bound for a California nursery, blew the whistle after his supervisor told him to disregard the problem and concentrate on terrorism. The catch prevented citrus canker from getting a toe-hold in California, saving millions of dollars, but the inspector was nonetheless demoted a month later for insubordination.
According to the story, government officials are coming around to the idea that lax inspections have dire consequences for the nation’s food and plant supply. Meanwhile, Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hi) has asked the Government Accountability Office to reopen an investigation into the issue. The full story is well worth reading. Thanks to John Griesbach for passing this along.