Michael Chertoff, Department of Homeland Security secretary, has agreed to make agricultural inspections at points of entry a top priority, according to a press release from Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.

Pest infestation cost the American agriculture industry $41 billion annually. In California alone, pest infestations cost farmers about $3 billion a year, according to the release. 

Yet, since the Department of Homeland Security took over responsibility for agriculture inspections in 2003, fewer agricultural inspections have been conducted at key points of entry and the morale of agriculture specialists has been low, the release says.

"I believe there is a serious problem with agriculture inspections at the Department of Homeland Security," Feinstein was quoted as saying in the release. "The causes are many. The stakes are high. The impact potentially devastating."

She outlined the problems:

  • Agriculture inspections are down.  Agriculture inspectors at DHS are being taken off of their jobs 22 percent of the time and assigned other jobs.
  • TPest infestations are up. California alone has three medfly infestations this year. And other states have similar problems. Florida has seen a 29 percent increase in pest outbreaks over the past four years.

"These two factors combined are endangering our nation's food supply and agriculture industry," Feinstein says.

After holding meetings with Feinstein, Chertoff agreed to reform the department's agriculture inspection process and send two memos to all of the department's Customs and Border Protection field office employees informing them of the changes: 

  • The first memo will reinforce the importance of agriculture inspections within the Department, and reaffirm that agriculture specialists are to be dedicated to the mission of protecting our nation from foreign pests and plant or animal diseases.
  • The second memo will announce a new position within the department, deputy executive director for agriculture operational oversight, who will be charged with ensuring a more consistent application of agriculture inspection policy across all points of entry.

In response to Chertoff's commitment to improve agriculture inspections, Feinstein withdrew her amendment to the farm bill that sought to transfer responsibility for conducting agricultural inspections at all points of entry in the United States from the Department of Homeland Security back to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

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