Agricultural Inspection:

Improvements Needed to Minimize Threat of Foreign Pests and Diseases

RCED-97-102: Published: May 5, 1997. Publicly Released: May 5, 1997.

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GAO reviewed the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service's (APHIS) efforts to minimize the risks to agriculture from pests and diseases entering the United States, focusing on: (1) recent developments that could challenge the ability of APHIS' Agricultural Quarantine and Inspection program to carry out its mission; (2) APHIS' efforts to cope with these developments; and (3) the effectiveness of the inspection program in keeping pace with workload changes.

GAO noted that: (1) several developments are challenging APHIS' ability to effectively manage its inspection program; (2) key among these is the rapid growth in international trade and travel since 1990, which has dramatically increased the amount of cargo and the number of passengers that inspectors are to examine; (3) in addition, policy changes that emphasize facilitating trade and customer service have put pressure on APHIS to carry out its increased inspection responsibilities more quickly in order to speed the flow of passengers and trade; (4) APHIS has taken several steps to cope with these developments; (5) it increased funding and staffing for inspections by about 78 percent and 44 percent, respectively, from fiscal year (FY) 1990 to 1996; (6) the agency has attempted to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of its inspections by: (a) using other inspection techniques in addition to visual inspections, such as x-ray technology and detector dogs, to pinpoint prohibited agricultural products, such as untreated fruits, vegetables, and meats from countries that present a higher risk for pests and diseases; and (b) coordinating with other Federal Inspection Service agencies to maximize inspection activities; (7) APHIS began implementing its results monitoring program in FY 1997 to better understand which ports of entry and commodities pose the highest risks of entry for harmful pests and disease; (8) despite these changes, inspectors at the ports GAO visited are struggling to keep pace with increased workloads; (9) heavy workloads have led to inspection shortcuts, which raise questions about the efficiency and overall effectiveness of these inspections; (10) on a broader scale, APHIS' efforts to address its workload problems are hampered by inadequate information for determining how to best deploy its inspectors; (11) in particular, its current staffing models, mathematical formulas used to help determine inspection staffing needs, are not based on reliable information and do not incorporate risk assessment factors similar to those being developed in its results monitoring program; and (12) consequently, APHIS has little assurance that it is deploying its limited inspection resources at the nation's ports of entry that are most vulnerable to the introduction of pests and diseases.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To better ensure that APHIS identifies harmful pests and diseases through the inspections that it conducts, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Administrator, APHIS, to issue guidance that emphasizes the need for APHIS inspectors to adhere to minimum inspection standards in terms of the methods used to select samples from shipments chosen for inspection.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: APHIS field personnel, with input and guidance from regional and headquarters staff, have comprehensively evaluated their inspection protocols to ensure that they are uniform and consistent with national inspection policy. Data collected by APHIS' Agricultural Quarantine Inspection monitoring program has provided information on the relative risk associated with the entry of passengers and commodities into the United States.

    Recommendation: To strengthen APHIS' ability to allocate its inspection resources more effectively and efficiently, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Administrator, APHIS, to develop and implement plans that will improve the reliability of data in the Workload Accomplishment Data System.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: APHIS has established national standards for uniform and consistent data collection. Also, each APHIS Plant Protection and Quarantine region established an Agricultural Quarantine Inspection (AQI) specialist position to conduct program analysis and risk assessment. Program analyses performed by AQI specialists have enhanced the reliability of data in the Workload Accomplishment Data System. Additionally, ports of entry have established local management teams to improve the accuracy of Workload Accomplishment Data System.

    Recommendation: To strengthen APHIS' ability to allocate its inspection resources more effectively and efficiently, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Administrator, APHIS, to develop and implement plans that will integrate a risk assessment factor, developed on the basis of the results monitoring program, into its staffing allocation process.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: APHIS has established local risk management teams at ports of entry to conduct local risk assessments and recommend options to manage risks identified. APHIS also incorporated risk factors into its port specific staffing models. These models, which are reviewed and adjusted annually, forecast staffing needs. Statistics from the Agricultural Quarantine Inspection results monitoring pilot project and the AQI results monitoring operations help to ensure that all levels of pest and plant quarantine have reliable data for making inspection level and staffing decisions.

    Recommendation: To strengthen APHIS' ability to allocate its inspection resources more effectively and efficiently, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Administrator, APHIS, to develop and implement plans that will position APHIS to evaluate inspection resources in terms of national rather than regional needs.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: To focus more on a national basis, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service established national operational standards and has decided to consolidate the four Pest and Plant Quarantine regions into two regions. The agency expects that this will contribute significantly toward achieving national consistency and believes that recent improvements in the Workload Accomplishment Data System and the Agricultural Quarantine Inspection results monitoring will increase its ability to quantify risk and therefore devote resources more on a national basis.

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