Report examines methods used to circumvent import restrictions

By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI

Capital Press

The international black market for exotic plants and animals is a potential pathway for the introduction of diseases and invasive species into the U.S.

That's according to a new report from USDA that looks at the economics of plant and animal smuggling and its possible negative effects on U.S. agriculture.

Accurate estimates about the volume of plants and animals smuggled into the U.S. are difficult to come by due to the illicit nature of the activity, the study said.

The potential for increased smuggling is a concern due to rising legitimate trade with Asian and South American countries, as well as growing demand for foreign products among immigrants to the U.S.

Smuggling may already have cost U.S. producers money.

In 2003, California chicken farmers spent $168 million eradicating an outbreak of exotic Newcastle disease that is believed to be linked to game bird smuggling from Mexico, the study said.

Spices smuggled from China, on the other hand, threaten to introduce diseases that can harm citrus production, such as canker.

Such materials have a "high value relative to their size" -- making them prime candidates for smuggling -- and small amounts can carry a large disease risk, the report said.

Exotic live plants are often smuggled into the U.S. with their native soils, which may contain invasive species as well.

One method of smuggling, called "trans-shipping," involves importing materials into the U.S. through an intermediary with weaker regulations, the study said.

For example, the U.S. requires grapes from Chile to be fumigated, but does not require the same treatment of Mexican grapes. Chilean grapes could be moved through Mexico simply to avoid the additional expense.

Smugglers also import prohibited materials by misidentifying them as permitted goods.

Such misrepresentations are difficult for inspectors to catch when dealing with "cargo containers that are large and require space to unpack, especially if the cargo is refrigerated and labeled in a foreign language," the study said.

The full study is available online at www.ers.usda.gov. Click on the "Publications" tab at the top of the page, then the "ERS research reports" link. Open the document titled "The Economics of Agricultural and Wildlife Smuggling."

Staff writer Mateusz Perkowski is based in Salem, Ore. E-mail: mperkowski@capitalpress.com.

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