Expanded inspection center helps USDA handle growth boom

Filed in News by on October 29, 2013

While the USDA’s Atlanta plant inspection station was already the nation’s second-busiest point of entry for foreign-grown flowers, ornamental shrubs, and other plant material, its cramped quarters – tucked into a corner of a refrigerated warehouse at the northern edge of Hartsfield-Jackson – threatened to hinder the industry’s regional growth.

Not anymore. In early September, the arm of the federal agency tasked with vetting propagative plants – those intended to be grown, as opposed to cut flowers or fresh produce – opened a new, 17,000-square-foot facility that now provides enough space to expedite inspections of multiple shipments of plant cargo at one time.

More than three times the size of its former, 5,000-square-foot space a short distance away, the new station has two sets of climate-controlled loading docks ‑ one of which faces the tarmac to facilitate quick transfer to and from planes – where USDA inspectors perform the initial visual checks for insect pests or signs of plant diseases. The building also houses classroom space for inspector training; laboratory space for more thorough testing; and additional state-of-the-art entomology and plant pathology labs.

Arguably, when it comes to inspecting imports, the U.S. Customs Department has the sexier job. Custom officers are the ones on the lookout for exotic animals, products made from endangered species, unapproved pharmaceuticals, Cuban cigars, narcotics, and other contraband. The USDA, however, is tasked with making sure foreign beetles don’t come in on a shipment of saplings and lay waste to the Georgia pine forests. Or that a devastating root disease isn’t introduced into local nurseries.

Even though USDA inspectors deal only with live plants and plant cuttings, they are responsible for enforcing a 641-page handbook of federal regulations, explains Carlos Perez, the supervisory officer in charge of the facility.

Around 200 million plant shipments were processed at the station over the past year, says Perez. Although less than one percent of the 200 million units inspected each year are found to contain pests, the threat is taken very seriously since these pests could potentially cause severe damage to U.S. agriculture and natural resources. The USDA’s “Least Wanted” list includes the tiny Khapra beetle from South Asia, which feeds on stored grain; the Asian longhorn beetle, whose tastes include 13 varieties of hardwood trees; and the light brown apple moth from Australia, whose larvae can decimate whole orchards.

Most of the imports are shrubs or flowering perennials bound for regional nurseries, but inspectors also encounter seeds, live cuttings and even orchids. In the weeks leading up to Christmas, the center is flooded with poinsettias from Mexico.

When plants are unloaded from aircraft, they are driven by licensed courier, brokers or freight forwarders to the inspection center and a portion of the load is inspected – the federal standard currently is 2 percent. The shipments are to be offloaded into the climate-controlled inspection area, which is kept at a steady 75 degrees Fahrenheit and uses blowers above the bay doors to ensure that flying insects aren’t allowed to escape outside.

An inspector then gives the cargo a visual once-over, looking for symptoms of plant diseases; checking for holes in crates made by wood-boring beetles; and keeping eyes peeled for other pests – charmingly referred to as “hitchhikers” – such as moths, scale insects, and snails. If the inspector sees cause for concern, he or she can bring the items into the lab, where dirt can be sifted and tiny seeds examined under the microscope.

If a disease or insect is found, the affected cargo is placed in a sealed quarantine area and its importer is given 24 hours to decide whether to cure the problem through treatment, if possible; send it back to its country of origin; or destroy it with a rendezvous with a sterilizer, which cooks the items for 30 minutes at 212 degrees.

The Atlanta facility is advertising for its first on site trained botanist to help with identifying plants, seeds and Perez is looking forward to when the USDA establishes a protocol for determining species through DNA testing; when that happens, the center’s new DNA lab is ready and waiting.

With the volume of plant cargo coming into ATL increasing by an average of 10 percent each year, the new inspection center gives the USDA some much-needed room to grow. In the coming months, Perez also hopes to earn LEED certification for the building.

“There was a great deal of demand from customers throughout the Southeast for an expanded facility,” says Perez.

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