(Oct. 4) Saying it is not too late to correct a serious mistake, specialty crop industry leaders argued before the House Agriculture Committee’s horticulture subcommittee on Oct. 3 that it is time to move Agriculture Quarantine and Inspection staff and duties back to the U.S. Department of Agriculture from the Department of Homeland Security.

Three industry panelists testified that there have been too many problems to let the experiment go on any longer.

Charles Bronson, Florida Commissioner of Agriculture, said the Department of Homeland Security simply isn’t best suited to prevent invasive pests.

“Since AQI was transferred to DHS in 2003, there has been a 27% increase in the number of new plant pests and disease incursions in the state of Florida,” he said.

“Rather than weakening the current infrastructure, I see a transfer of AQI back to USDA as strengthening both USDA and DHS in their primary mission area,” Bronson said.

John McClung, president of the Texas Produce Association, Mission, agreed that the best solution would a transfer of pest inspectors back to the USDA.

“We want a federal AQI program housed in an agency that puts foreign pest exclusion above all other priorities and we believe the experience of the past few years shows that only can happen in the long run under USDA,” McClung said in his statement.

Contacted after the Capitol Hill hearing, Joel Nelsen, president of the Exeter, Calif.-based California Citrus Mutual, said the industry is not well served by the current structure.

“We were all saying it is not working where it is, and no matter how much we talk about what needs to be improved, the management structure is not conducive to a good ag inspection program,” Nelsen said.

Still, Nelsen put the odds of the legislation that would move AQI back to USDA at 50-50 at best, noting that President Bush’s administration has asked the industry to give the DHS another chance.