Imported Agriculture: Updated Planning and Communication Could Enhance Agency Coordination of Inspections

GAO-21-471 Published: Jun 01, 2021. Publicly Released: Jun 01, 2021.
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Fast Facts

Federal agencies (such as Customs and Border Protection and the Animal Plant and Health Inspection Service) oversee inspections at U.S. ports of entry to protect U.S. agriculture from pests and diseases.

CBP and APHIS created a task force to coordinate inspections, as well as a joint strategic plan for 2014-2019. But we found that:

  • The task force hasn't updated the plan or reported on progress toward its goals
  • There were instances of miscommunication between CBP and inspectors from another agency

We recommended CBP and APHIS report on the task force's progress, update its strategic plan, and that CBP update guidance on communication.

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Highlights

What GAO Found

The Department of Homeland Security's U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) oversee inspections of imported agricultural products to protect the U.S. agricultural industry and environment. For example, in 2020, CBP inspectors intercepted egg masses of the Asian gypsy moth, a pest that poses a threat to fruit trees and other plants. CBP and APHIS also work to prevent the introduction of diseases such as African swine fever, which could cause billions of dollars in damage to the U.S. pork supply.

CBP and APHIS created the Joint Agency Task Force (JATF) to coordinate on inspections and a joint strategic plan for 2014–2019. The JATF has not updated its strategic plan; as a result, the plan's objectives are not current. According to CBP, the agencies took action to complete the objectives. For example, CBP's deployment of digital microscopes completed an objective to leverage technology to identify pests. However, the JATF has not reported on its progress toward meeting the objectives in its 2014–2019 plan. GAO has previously found that progress reports can help hold agencies accountable for achieving results. Developing a progress report would allow the JATF to document its progress and would provide valuable information to inform development of an updated strategic plan. Without assessing the JATF's progress and updating its strategic plan, CBP and APHIS cannot ensure that the JATF's objectives reflect the most current or urgent matters affecting imported agriculture.

According to CBP officials, CBP guidance directs its inspectors to contact inspectors with the Department of the Interior's Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) about wildlife encountered during inspections of imported animals. CBP and FWS inspectors said that they have a collaborative working relationship, but some CBP inspectors described miscommunication with FWS at ports of entry because they did not have sufficient contact information. CBP officials told GAO that CBP supervisors at the ports of entry are responsible for ensuring their inspectors follow CBP's guidance, which includes whom to contact at FWS. However, GAO found that the most recent updates of this guidance ranged from 2009 to 2020. By reviewing and updating existing communication guidance where necessary, CBP could help address any gaps in communication between CBP and FWS inspectors at ports of entry.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agriculture Specialists and Canine Team

U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agriculture Specialists and Canine Team

Why GAO Did This Study

USDA estimates that over 50,000 invasive species are already in the U.S., costing almost $120 billion annually in environmental damages and losses. Federal inspectors at U.S. ports of entry help prevent threats from invasive species by inspecting agricultural products (e.g., plants, seeds, and animals) entering the U.S. CBP conducts the majority of inspections, APHIS sets inspection standards, and FWS inspects imported wildlife. The Protecting America's Food and Agriculture Act of 2019 authorized $221.6 million in appropriations to increase CBP staffing levels for inspectors for fiscal years 2020, 2021, and 2022.

The act includes a provision that GAO review federal efforts to address risks to the agricultural supply. This report examines, among other things, how federal agencies coordinate responsibilities for inspection of imported agriculture. GAO reviewed agency documents and interviewed agency officials and agency inspectors working at large and small ports of entry.

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Recommendations

GAO is making five recommendations, including that CBP and APHIS report on the joint task force's progress and update its strategic plan and that CBP review and update agency guidance on communication at ports of entry. CBP and APHIS concurred with all of GAO's recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
United States Customs and Border Protection The Commissioner of CBP, in collaboration with the Director of APHIS, should report on the CBP-APHIS Joint Agency Task Force's progress in meeting its objectives for the 2014–2019 strategic plan, and develop periodic progress reports for future strategic plans. (Recommendation 1)
Open
In October 2021, CBP provided a progress report (including accomplishments) for the CBP-APHIS Joint Agency Task Force's 2014-2019 strategic plan. The 2022-2026 strategic plan, provided by APHIS in November 2021, includes a mention of performance measures. Specifically, the strategic plan notes that performance measures are used to monitor the progress of the goals and that APHIS and CBP will demonstrate program effectiveness in achieving the performance goals through the continued evaluation and improvement of performance measures. We consider this recommendation as partially implemented and will follow up with CBP and APHIS about a progress report for the 2022-2026 strategic plan.
Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service The Director of APHIS, in collaboration with the Commissioner of CBP, should report on the CBP-APHIS Joint Agency Task Force's progress in meeting its objectives for the 2014–2019 strategic plan, and develop periodic progress reports for future strategic plans. (Recommendation 2)
Open
In October 2021, CBP provided a progress report (including accomplishments) for the CBP-APHIS Joint Agency Task Force's 2014-2019 strategic plan. The 2022-2026 strategic plan, provided by APHIS in November 2021, includes a mention of performance measures. Specifically, the strategic plan notes that performance measures are used to monitor the progress of the goals and that APHIS and CBP will demonstrate program effectiveness in achieving the performance goals through the continued evaluation and improvement of performance measures. We consider this recommendation as partially implemented and will follow up with CBP and APHIS about progress reports for the 2022-2026 strategic plan.
United States Customs and Border Protection The Commissioner of CBP, in collaboration with the Director of APHIS, should update the CBP-APHIS Joint Agency Task Force Strategic Plan. (Recommendation 3)
Closed – Implemented
In January 2022, USDA/APHIS provided GAO with a copy of the updated CBP-APHIS Joint Agency Task Force Strategic Plan 2022-2026 signed by representatives of both agencies.
Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service The Director of APHIS, in collaboration with the Commissioner of CBP, should update the CBP-APHIS Joint Agency Task Force Strategic Plan. (Recommendation 4)
Closed – Implemented
In January 2022, USDA/APHIS provided GAO with a copy of the updated CBP-APHIS Joint Agency Task Force Strategic Plan 2022-2026 signed by representatives of both agencies.
United States Customs and Border Protection The Commissioner of CBP, with input from the Director of FWS, should review CBP's existing guidance on communication with FWS at U.S. ports of entry and update the guidance where necessary. (Recommendation 5)
Open
As of January 2022, CBP and FWS continue to collaborate to improve interagency communication concerning the discovery and/or interdiction of illegal wildlife and wildlife products at the U.S. ports of entry and intelligence sharing in support of wildlife investigations. In addition, according to CBP, the agencies are planning to develop a formal memorandum of understanding that will define each agency's roles and responsibilities concerning the internal flow of communication at U.S. ports of entry and external communications to the public. CBP plans to complete this memorandum of understanding by October 31, 2022.

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