A new border war
By WES ALLISON
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 12, 2001
The beef was cured hard as hickory and wrapped in black plastic. Miyawa handed it only somewhat reluctantly to U.S. Department of Agriculture agents checking bags and passengers disembarking from Wednesday's British Airways flight from London to Tampa International Airport.
"Part of the ritual was we were supposed to bring it back here and spread it around to family members," Miyawa, 25, explained as agents searched their suitcases for other foods, finding only a six-pack of Kenyan beer and a wooden elephant that, on the X-ray machine, had looked a lot like an illegal African yam. "It's supposed to bring good luck."
Recent outbreaks of foot and mouth disease in the United Kingdom have alarmed U.S. agricultural officials, as has the spread of mad cow disease, and the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service has bolstered efforts to try to keep the devastating diseases from immigrating.
That means checking more passengers and more bags, and confiscating more food from foreign flights, especially from Europe.
"Everybody eats. Not everybody smuggles drugs," said David Hertel, acting director of operations at the APHIS office in Tampa. "So we have more potential for them to be bringing in illegal fruits and vegetables and meat. That's why we're so vigilant."
An officer tossed the Kenyan beef into a trash bin with hard sausage, gravy mix and fruit confiscated from other passengers. Miyawa, who had declared the meat on the customs form all passengers get, understood. "We're not going to die over it," he said.
Foot and mouth disease is not dangerous to humans, but it looks like black death to livestock farmers. It can infect any cloven-hoofed animal, including cattle, sheep, goats and pigs, causing a high fever and blisters in the mouth and on the hoofs. Some animals recover, but it usually leaves them severely debilitated.
The virus is highly contagious and can be easily transmitted by other infected animals, or even by the clothing and shoes of people who come in contact with them.
The only way to stop an outbreak is to destroy animals infected with it.
"We've sent alerts to all of our field offices asking them to continue to be vigilant in what they do every single day, and in particular examining flights coming from Europe, and the U.K. specifically," USDA spokesman Kevin Herglotz said.
The agency also inspects foreign flights into St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport and freighters arriving at Port Manatee and the Port of Tampa.
The last known foot and mouth outbreak in this country occurred in 1929, and an outbreak now could cost billions of dollars in lost meat and dairy products, the USDA says. Florida would be badly hurt, with $1.3-billion in livestock sales annually. The state also produces $423-million worth of dairy products.
In the global village of agricultural inspection, everything comes down to country of origin. What plants or animals the United States allows depends on where they're from, and officers rely on updates from Washington and thick manuals to sort it out.
Beef from Jamaica, for instance, is welcome, but not from the nearby Cayman Islands, which augments its supply with cattle from South American countries that have foot and mouth and mad cow diseases. Because of widespread hog diseases, fresh pork products are forbidden from virtually everywhere, but canned pork from some nations is okay.
Coconuts from Jamaica are taboo because they can carry the lethal yellowing disease, which has hurt coconut palms in South Florida in the past. Yams from Africa often carry a beetle that could infest root vegetables grown in the Southeast.
All people entering the United States fill out a form that asks if they're carrying any meat, vegetables, fruits or plants, or if they've visited a foreign ranch or farm.
Those who answer yes are diverted to the USDA inspection counter, where they're quizzed in person and their bags are X-rayed. Bags and passengers also are randomly picked for inspection.
If something looks suspicious, like Miyawa's elephant, agents search the bag by hand. They also use a spray of soda ash to disinfect the shoes of anyone who has been on a foreign farm.
History offers plenty of warnings about foreign pests. The Asian eel is out-eating native species in South Florida waterways. The Mediterranean fruit fly gives the devil to American citrus growers. "Take the fire ant," said Hertel, a former farmer in Alabama. "When that thing came in at Mobile, it had no natural enemies. That thing just spread."
Hertel joined the USDA in 1968 to fight the fire ant after it arrived on a Brazilian freighter. The government sprayed million-acre blocks to kill the ants, but anyone who walks barefoot in Florida knows who won.
Nationally, the task is gargantuan. At Miami International Airport, which handles 85 percent of imported fresh cut flowers, agents must inspect 30,000 boxes of flowers each day, the USDA said.
At TIA, five to six officers handle every large foreign flight, including three to five British Airways flights from London each week and one to three Condor flights from Germany. They also inspect the frequent flights from Jamaica, Cayman Islands, Bahamas and Mexico.
Most tell people to say if they're carrying food, Hertel said. Those who don't can be fined, but they rarely are. Usually, people are simply trying to bring a taste of home to friends or relatives.
Hertel's crew once discovered a German butcher carrying 50 pounds of meats. Last year, Officer Cody Matthews stopped a South African woman who was trying to bring jerked wildebeest to her daughter's wedding. "She said, 'I will give you anything if you let me give that to my daughter,' " Matthews recalled. "It wasn't the money, it was the good luck."
It took about an hour Wednesday to clear all 354 passengers from the British Airways flight through customs, immigration and agriculture. By then, the APHIS officers had searched the bags of 92 passengers and confiscated at least 25 pounds of meat and other foods, declared and smuggled.
Eventually, it would be incinerated.
"You can't look at everybody. There's just no way," Hertel said. "We try to do the best job we can."
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