Sunday, July 22, 2007

Importing Trouble

Article in the Palm Beach Post containing an interview with Brooks Tropicals' CEO, Craig Wheeling

by Susan Salisbury, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

So far this year, inspectors at the Port of Miami have found and intercepted almost 20 types of foreign insect pests that have never been seen before in the United States.

Looked at one way, it's an entomologist's dream.

Looked at another, it's Creepy-Crawly Central: Miami's port leads the nation in the number of harmful exotic pests it discovers each year.

Nearby at the Miami International Airport on a recent morning, Ellen Ingber is examining a fingerling potato that has been seized from a passenger arriving from Peru. Ingber, an officer with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency, slices open the potato and finds a plump, wriggling white larva. It's alive and well. She places it under a microscope.

"We want to find these pests," Ingber says. "We recently found Mediterranean fruit flies from Spain."

That's life on the front lines of the battle to keep America safe from hazardous imports -- from food to furniture, and even people. Zachary Mann, a customs special agent based in Miami, says his agency's mission is to protect Americans from "thugs, drugs and bugs."

And South Florida is one of the most important battlegrounds in that fight. Fully 69 percent of all perishable imports -- fruits, vegetables, seafood and flowers -- coming into the country by plane come into Miami's airport.

In 2006, that amounted to close to 419,000 tons of stuff.

The customs officers also are responsible for checking things that come in by sea. "We target 100 percent of all cargo entering the United States for various threats and violations of laws, regulations and rules," Mann said. "This includes food-related violations, pest, disease, drugs, guns, human health and safety, plant and animal health or anything else that may cross the border and negatively impact our domestic industries."

At the same time, the agency doesn't want to thwart legitimate international trade and travel. There's pressure to expedite shipments so the goods can be delivered and sold, and that means most containers are in and out of the seaport in a day."No other law enforcement agency in the U.S.A. has such a difficult balancing act," Mann said.

On that recent hot, sticky morning at the Port of Miami, a dozen or so customs agricultural specialists have the unenviable task of crawling into even more stifling 20-foot and 40-foot metal cargo containers.

This batch of more than 20 containers, part of the morning's work of 168 container inspections, is packed with the kind of travertine and marble tiles Americans covet for their homes. Today's shipments includes tiles from Turkey, Italy, Spain, France and other countries. The inspectors are looking for hitchhiking insects, seeds, or anything else that could cause a problem if it gets released.

"You open up a container and you will know from experience whether you need to look further," said Kevin Torres, one of the specialists. "This load is from Turkey. This is a true bug," Torres said, holding it up while using the term for a large class of insects that includes creatures that suck the juice out of plants.

The finds are deposited in plastic containers and sent to U.S. Department of Agriculture entomologists in Miami. Torres carries a thick black binder that holds several dozen pages filled with pictures of bugs.
"We find the same ones over and over every day," he said. "Some pests carry diseases, such as snails. We also check for bird residue. Feathers can carry avian flu."

Back at the airport's passenger terminal, Ingber and fellow agent Maria Otero have a dining-table sized collection of 40 or so items of produce and meats they have seized from incoming international passengers in the past two hours. Many, if not most, of those carrying the contraband are professional couriers who are paid to smuggle the desired food into the country, the officers said.

Passengers are not allowed to bring in any fresh fruits and vegetables that could harbor pests or diseases. Meats are allowed in only if they are from U.S. Department of Agriculture-approved facilities.

On this particular day, the forbidden food includes oranges from Brazil, apples from Israel, sugar cane from Jamaica, mangoes from Haiti and more. All if it will be destroyed.

"They think they can smuggle it in," Otero said. The fine for a first offense is $300. Some of the confiscated items are still tagged with the names of their intended recipients. Other items were probably destined for the black market, the officers said.

At the seaport, the agricultural specialists' haul includes snails, seeds, beetles and true bugs, but there's nothing particularly startling. Not like some days, Torres said. "We have found cats and even people in containers," he said.

The specialists check to see that the wood used to build the crates holding the tiles within the containers has been treated for pests in order to keep out the pinewood nematode, the Asian longhorned beetle and other pests that could devastate U.S. agricultural industries such as timber.

They also look for an International Plant Protection Convention stamp. Containers without it are not permitted. "Some have tried to cheat. The stamp has to be branded on the wood," Torres said, nodding approval as he spots the brand mark on one of the containers.

The agency targets incoming shipments by first looking at a list of what is in a container. Shippers must supply a manifest 24 hours prior to the ship's arrival. Containers with a high possibility of holding pests are set aside for inspection.

In addition to visual inspection, other detection tools are used, from drug-sniffing beagles to giant truck-size X-ray machines known as radiation portal monitors. "It gives a visual, and we can determine if a container needs a closer look," Torres said. Last year, the Port of Miami interdicted more than 2,500 insects, some of which were "first finds," or pests new to the U.S.

Torres said first finds are increasing. Imports have shot up in recent years, and as the demand for raw materials to make tiles and the wood for crates to hold them goes farther into the jungle and countryside, increasingly strange critters are ending up in shipments. "The deeper you go, the more pests are coming out that have never been discovered," he said.

Importers such as Homestead-based Brooks Tropicals, which also grows fruit in Florida and Belize, appreciate the hardworking customs teams, but say more manpower is needed to catch more of the pests and diseases.

Craig Wheeling, Brooks' chief executive officer, said his company's lime production in Miami-Dade County was destroyed in the eradication program that followed the 1995 discovery in the county of citrus canker, a bacterium that sickens fruit trees and blemishes their fruit.

State agricultural officials have long theorized the canker could have been on a citrus seedling or cutting brought in from abroad, and transported by an individual. The disease is now endemic throughout Florida.

"We were the nation's largest lime grower," Wheeling said. "Our lime groves were destroyed in 2002-03. It was a difficult time for us."

His company, with almost 2,000 employees in the U.S. and overseas, imports 25 products from 15 countries and ships throughout the U.S. and Canada.

"I am all for spending extra money to try and catch as many of these pests as possible. Once they get established in Florida, it is extremely difficult to get rid of them," Wheeling said. "Because of the large amount of trade that comes through Florida from foreign countries, there are an awful lot of pests that pop up."

But Wheeling said the country's inspection services don't have enough manpower to catch everything.

"It has been my experience that the folks in charge of protecting the food chain and the food coming into the U.S. are hardworking, good people," he said. "If they had a little more help, it would probably be useful."