The United States Senate on October 25 unanimously approved a bill to address the shortage of agricultural inspectors who protect the nation’s food supply and agricultural industries at the border.

The Protecting America’s Food & Agriculture Act of 2019 would ensure the safe and secure trade of agricultural goods across our nation’s borders by authorizing U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to hire additional inspectors, support staff and canine teams to fully staff America’s airports, seaports and land ports of entry.

The bipartisan legislation was introduced by Sens. Gary Peters, D-Michigan; Pat Roberts, R-Kansas; Debbie Stabenow, D-Michigan and John Cornyn, R-Texas.

Peters serves as the ranking member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, and Roberts and Stabenow are chairman and ranking member of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry, respectively. 

“Agriculture is a critical economic driver in Michigan and across the country, but longstanding shortages of agricultural inspectors limits Customs and Border Protection’s ability to prevent pests, diseases and other dangers from entering our country and puts production at risk,” said Peters. “Every day, millions of passengers and tens of thousands of shipping containers carrying food products cross our nation’s borders, any one of which could do significant damage to America’s food supply and agricultural industries. I’m pleased the Senate unanimously approved my bipartisan bill to fill this unacceptable security gap, and I look forward to its swift consideration in the House of Representatives.” 

 “Hundreds of billions of dollars in goods pass through Texas’ ports of entry annually,” added Cornyn. “This legislation would boost the number of inspectors safeguarding the safety and integrity of goods and products coming across our border, which would benefit all Americans.” 

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The USDA and CBP work together to facilitate the safe and secure entry of agricultural goods into the U.S. The program’s Agricultural Specialists and canine units conduct inspections of foreign passengers, commercial vessels, trucks, aircraft and railcars at U.S. ports of entry to protect health and safety by preventing the entry of harmful goods and invasive species that may pose a threat to American food and agriculture. On a typical day, those inspectors process more than 1 million passengers and 78,000 truck, rail and sea containers carrying goods worth approximately $7.2 billion. According to CBP estimates, there is a shortage of nearly 700 inspectors across the country. 

The Protecting America’s Food & Agriculture Act of 2019 authorizes the annual hiring of 240 Agricultural Specialists a year until the workforce shortage is filled, and 200 Agricultural Technicians a year to carry out administrative and support functions. The bill also authorizes the training and assignment of 20 new canine teams a year, which have proven valuable in detecting illicit fruits, vegetables and animal products that may have otherwise been missed in initial inspections. Finally, the bill authorizes supplemental appropriations each year to pay for the activities of the agriculture specialists, technicians and canine teams. 

The passage has drawn the applause of agricultural organizations, including pork groups concerned about the possibility that African swine fever (ASF) might enter the United States.

“Preventing the spread of African swine fever and other foreign animal diseases to the United States is our top priority,” said David Herring, president of the National Pork Producers Council. “We appreciate all that the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection are doing to strengthen biosecurity at our borders. To further safeguard American agriculture, we need additional agriculture inspectors at our sea and airports. This essential legislation will help address the current inspection shortfall, reduce the risk of ASF and other foreign animal diseases, and protect the food supply for U.S. consumers.” 

“With the outbreak of African Swine Fever in China and many other countries around the world, U.S. border safeguards are more important than ever to protect America’s food supply,” said Mary Kelpinksi, CEO of the Michigan Pork Producers Association. “Border security professionals must have the resources necessary to carry out this critical mission and protect our nation from contaminated or fraudulent imports. This commonsense legislation will help ensure our farmers can continue to produce the highest quality products—without fear that foreign imports will compromise the quality of U.S. goods.”