Keep in mind that CBP isn’t just tasked with intercepting
pallets and crating and inspecting the nooks and crannies of
ships and shipping containers. It is also looking out for drugs,
illicit currency, and other smuggled items, including humans.
They work to nab criminals and terrorists and find illegal aliens
and victims of human trafficking.
Some of the things we had wanted to ask CBP higher-ups
included how inspectors choose which containers to open and
go through, how long they spend with each container, and what
percentage of containers are physically inspected.
We had a little more luck with APHIS, where a spokesperson,
in email responses to questions, said CBP’s agricultural inspectors are trained jointly by APHIS and CBP. The 10-week course
for rookie inspectors includes coursework in plant pathology,
pest interception, regulatory decisionmaking, taxonomic entomology, and other disciplines.
Once in the field, these inspectors go through cargo and
packing looking for pests, employing tools as commonplace
as flashlights to illuminate the dark recesses of a shipping
container and crowbars to take apart pallets “to observe wood
boring pests within the wood packaging material,” she wrote.
They examine a shipment’s documentation to determine if it
meets APHIS entrance requirements.
If pests are found, they’re sent to laboratories for identification. The materials in which they were found and the goods they
accompanied are “reexported” – in other words, put back into the
shipping container, reloaded onto the ship, and sent out to sea.
Exotic bugs have been found in some interesting places.
According to CBP’s website, Asian longhorned beetle larvae
were found in the stocks of shotguns shipped from Turkey, wood
borers were found in wooden packing material holding auto
parts from China, and adult wood boring beetles were found in
pallets carrying laser-printer toner cartridges from Mexico.
In January, CBP agents at the Port of Philadelphia found a
long-horned beetle new to the U.S. in a shipment of pineapples
from Costa Rica, and in March, agents at the Port of Baltimore
found dead larvae of the Khapra beetle, a major grain pest, in a
shipment of cumin seeds from India.
A Regulatory Response
Trying to inspect all of the shipments into the U.S. is a bit like
the old tale of the little Dutch boy plugging holes in a dike
with his thumbs. Despite all the infested shipments the CBP
intercepts and reexports, some make it through with their
pests intact and ready to creep, crawl, or fly. In Fading Forests
III, Faith Thompson Campbell and Scott Schlarbaum cited an
estimate that 13,000 infested containers a year get through the
border agency’s net.
Once in the country, no one knows where a shipping
container will end up or what will be done with the wooden
packaging material. Once nonnative pests are established in
an area, a process that doesn’t happen overnight, it is almost
impossible to eradicate or contain them.
There has been some progress. One big step was adoption
in 2004 by the International Plant Protection Convention of the
International Standards for Phytosanitary Measures Number
15. It requires that wood packaging be heat-treated or fumigated
for pests. As a result, wooden packaging materials entering the
U.S. must be stamped with a special IPCC mark showing that
they have been treated.
But since pests are still being found, it’s obvious that the
requirement is no panacea, perhaps in part because counterfeit
stamps are now common in certain regions of the world,
including Africa and Latin America.