U.S. Customs and Border Protection

U.S. Customs and Border Protection agricultural specialists at the Port of Miami’s cargo terminal.

A coalition of more than 150 organizations representing agriculture is warning Congress of a looming $630 million shortfall in funding for Customs and Border Protection agricultural inspections due to the coronavirus pandemic.

That shortfall threatens to disrupt inspections, which are critical to preventing the introduction of plant and animal pests and diseases that could devastate U.S. agriculture, the coalition stated in a letter to members of Congress this week.

About 70% of the port-of-entry inspection fees collected by USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service are transferred to CBP for the Agricultural Quarantine Inspection program to cover salaries and expenses of inspection personnel.

Those employees inspect passengers, passenger baggage and cargo for host material that might carry both animal and plant pests and diseases, said Andrew Bailey, science and technology legal counsel for National Pork Producers Council, which led the coalition in the letter to Congress.

But the global COVID-19 pandemic has caused a precipitous downturn in international travel and reduced cargo imports.

The estimated fee shortfall through the end of the next fiscal year is $630 million, the letter stated.

“Foreign pests and diseases — such as African swine fever, which has killed more than one out of every four pigs globally — would have a devastating effect on American agriculture if they reached our shores,” the letter stated.

The coalition urged Congress to ensure the inspections continue through the pandemic.

“It is inconceivable that Congress would risk widespread damage to U.S. agriculture and the overall economy by not funding these inspections,” the letter stated.

National Pork Producers Council also coordinated a coalition letter to Congress in February to pass a bill authorizing CBP to hire additional inspection personnel, saying CBP has been chronically understaffed for years.

CBP has approximately 2,400 to 2,500 agricultural specialists. According to the agency’s own model, it needs about 3,100 to 3,200 inspectors to be fully staffed, Bailey said.

The bill, S. 2107, did pass and was signed into law in March. It authorized the hiring of 720 new agricultural inspectors, 600 new agricultural technicians and 60 new canine teams over three years, Bailey said.

About $19.6 million was appropriated in the December 2019 omnibus bill to hire more inspectors, he said.

NPPC doesn’t know if any additional inspectors have been hired and isn’t sure what CBD would do if Congress doesn’t provide funding to cover the projected pandemic-related shortfall, he said.

“If they reduced staff levels and still required inspections, it could slow international travel and trade dramatically. If they don’t require inspection, we’re looking at a significant increase in the risk of foreign animal and plant pests and disease getting into the U.S.,” he said.

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