A well-intended but problematic plant inspection policy change has been put on hold.
While the Department of Homeland Security’s Bureau of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has primary responsibility for inspecting cargo, passengers, ships, trains and planes entering the U.S. for plant and animal pests and diseases, USDA’s Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) inspects plants and plant propagative material, including things like unrooted cuttings. This work is done at 17 plant inspection stations in places like Miami, Atlanta, New York, and Los Angeles. Historically, plant imports have been inspected at a low rate of about two percent.
A new sampling protocol started to take effect July 16, and immediately caused problems particularly at the plant inspection station adjacent to the Miami airport. What’s going on, and what might be done to alleviate the problems?
APHIS wants to do a better job of steering inspections to higher risk materials based on the type of plant, the country of origin, and even, potentially, the shipper. Over time, lower-risk plants, sources, and shippers would receive less scrutiny, while others would receive more. APHIS has established a program known as the Propagative Material Release Program (PMRP), which would expedite lower risk materials while higher risk materials are looked at more carefully.
The problem is, for many imports, APHIS lacks enough data to make risk-based decisions. So, the agency decided to dramatically increase the amount of material to be inspected, at least temporarily. In theory, over time, better data would drive the decisions. The problem is getting there from here.
The new risk-based sampling protocol leads to much higher inspection rates, especially for large shipments, or shipments that involve multiple types of plants. Virtually 100 percent inspection is the result in many cases. Mixed shipments are common, as customers often order a number of species and varieties, and it may not be practical for each to be shipped separately to the same customer.
So the new protocol immediately led to major delays in Miami at what is the peak season for poinsettia cutting imports. Adding insult to injury, hot summer weather and a lack of refrigeration in inspection facilities means highly perishable product is at risk of quality loss, or worse. Fortunately, APHIS quickly realized the problem, and moved to give inspection station directors the temporary discretion to adjust their approach.
Timing is often important, and ANLA was already scheduled to address the 2012 APHIS/CBP Stakeholder Conference. This important conference took place July 17, the day after the new protocol took effect. This gave ANLA a perfect platform to elevate concerns about the new policy, and the need for some modifications. We supported APHIS’ long-term goal of better risk decision making, but called for changes that would end the near-term disruption. We also had the chance to remind the regulators that “stakeholder collaboration” means more than publishing a Federal Register notice, or notifying industry just before a new policy takes effect. Rather, effective collaboration should mean informal consultation with the associations and regulated industry to get a sense of what a change will mean on the ground. The regulators still retain the authority to make their decisions, but the decisions are going to be better.
As the chaotic week of July 16 came to an end, APHIS put the new policy on hold, and has pledged to look at modifications. Most of the inspectors, and the scientists who designed the protocol, are well-intentioned and committed public servants who want to do a good job. Their work is important to the industry, but yet how they do it can have huge economic implications. The good news is that APHIS will work with us to refine their approach in the short term, with more effective risk-based inspections remaining the long-term goal.