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Agricultural Security Expert Urges U.S. to Reform Inspections, Focus on Supply Chains
I. Miley Gonzalez
As the United States increasingly relies on food and agricultural products imported from countries lacking strict quality and safety standards, it should impose tougher inspection standards on global food production and distribution networks, a top security expert said at a AAAS Capitol Hill briefing.
By obtaining more data about the production, packaging, and transportation methods of foods entering the United States, New Mexico Secretary of Agriculture I. Miley Gonzalez said, inspectors can narrow their focus to identify the shipments that pose the largest potential hazards and "target away" from safe and secure products.
"Shipments posing the highest risk are likely to be coming from countries and companies using poor supply chain security practices for production through transportation," said Gonzalez at the 23 August event. "By targeting riskier imports, states and the federal government will be able to increase efficiency and effectiveness of its inspection process."
Gonzalez, who has a doctoral degree from Pennsylvania State University and served as an under-secretary at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) during the administration of President Bill Clinton, said that focusing on the productís supply chain also will create an economic incentive for countries and companies to improve their production methods and choose shippers that secure their cargo.
"For economic reasons, the reputable industry can develop supply chain security measures to ultimately protect their reputation, profits, and brand name," said Gonzalez. Companies "literally own their supply chain and can make changes quickly to make sure their products enter the U.S. faster than their competitors."
The fourth in a series of agricultural security briefings sponsored by the AAAS Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy (CSTSP), the event was held in the weeks before Congress returned to session following its August recess.
Kavita Berger, senior program associate at CSTSP, said that the prominent recalls of Chinese toothpaste and dog food have brought agricultural security and border surveillance onto the national agenda.
"Agricultural and food security is a national issue because so much of the population is dependant on the industry," said Berger. "It's very important that all appropriate government agencies and industry work together to secure imported agricultural products."
In 2002, the Homeland Security Act transferred responsibility for inspecting all agricultural products at U.S. borders from the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) to Customs and Border Protection (CBP), an agency previously charged with securing the borders against illegal immigration and regulating international taxes and trade.
Although its border agents were given new training to help them identify hazardous agricultural shipments, a 2003 Government Accountability Office Report (GAO-074-209A) indicated that the CBP does not have the workforce, resources or training to adequately protect the United States against pathogens originating from imported foods.
"Recent changes in staffing along the border have resulted in federal agencies not having sufficient numbers of well-trained staff to address food and agricultural security issues," said Gonzalez. "In addition, the federal government needs to recognize that they also need to support and rely on state government inspection agencies."
Gonzalez cited a project in which New Mexico State University is working with the Food and Drug Administration to help develop rapid methods for detecting food pathogens. In addition, the New Mexico State University and the New Mexico Department of Agriculture regularly perform outreach to farmers, ranchers, schools, and industry about how they can help protect the nation's food supply.
Gonzalez said that outreach is important to remind the public about the importance of paying proper attention to how our food is handled at all stages, from production to the dinner table.
"The ease of access to an apparent abundance of food at an affordable cost has made it easier for people to forget their fundamental dependence on agriculture," Gonzalez said. "Without a safe domestic food supply, the nation's economy, and security, would be severely impacted."
12 September 2007