Staring at the x-ray screen at Boston’s Logan International Airport, Tara Kennedy didn’t know what to think.
After circling and sniffing the suitcase in question, her dog, Lily, a six-year veteran of the US Customs and Border Protection’s Beagle Brigade, had confidently sat down—the signal that agricultural products were hidden within. However, the x-ray machine revealed nothing more than clothing, the usual personal effects and several boxes of legal cigars.
“Open it up,” Kennedy told the x-ray technician.
An initial search of the bag yielded only the items seen on-screen. But the cigar boxes turned out to have a secret. Each contained a row of cigar-shaped sausages, complete with decorative paper bands—tacky and probably tasty souvenirs that, unfortunately for their owner, would never leave the customs area.
It was a typical day for the Beagle and her handler at Logan’s international terminal, where two things are certain: When you sniff around someone’s suitcase, you never know what you’ll find inside—a butchered hog, crocodile meat, land snails, live pigeons. And if there is meat, produce or plants to be found, a Beagle’s nose trumps x-rays every time.
Although the term “detector dog” evokes the image of tough-looking German Shepherds searching for narcotics or bombs, sunny-tempered Beagles are equally important members of CBP’s canine team. Nationwide, Beagle Brigade teams patrol international airports, land border ports of entry and major international mail facilities, where they help inspectors seize about 75,000 prohibited agricultural products a year.
Agricultural Time Bombs
On one hand, contraband beef, mangos and tulip bulbs certainly aren’t scary. On the other, they and other agricultural imports can harbor devastating threats to the US food supply and economy.
Together, CBP agriculture inspectors and their US Department of Agriculture counterparts intercept about 2 million agricultural products each year. The seized goods include more than 295,000 lots of unauthorized meat and animal byproducts that could carry diseases to poultry and livestock.
Kennedy says the Beagle Brigade refers to its watch list and only seizes meat “from areas that are known to carry disease in the particular type of meat we are seizing.” As an example, Jim Silverio, who works at Miami International Airport, describes a llama fetus his female Beagle, Q-T, found on a passenger from Peru. “It was some kind of religious article. But llamas can carry cattle diseases, and Peru does have foot and mouth disease, so it was confiscated.” Anyone who recalls the news footage of UK travelers scrubbing their shoes with bleach can understand this degree of caution. All confiscated meat is incinerated on site.
In addition, CBP agriculture inspectors and their USDA counterparts found nearly 55,000 exotic plant pests last fiscal year, including diseases and noxious weeds. Intercepted fruits and vegetables are checked for foreign pests and destroyed. Preserved insects and plant material are sent for further inspection and identification to USDA specialists.
“If you made a list of the 100 worst insect pests in the country right now, probably 99 of them have come from overseas,” says Robert Tracy, entomologist for the USDA’s inspection station in Linden, N.J. Al Falco, the officer in charge, agrees: “Japanese beetles, gypsy moths—all the common pests we are trying to control now—were originally exotic.” Tiny Mediterranean and Oriental fruit flies—found in fruit seized by the Beagle Brigade—multiply quickly, and they could decimate crops if they were to hitch a direct or connecting flight to Florida or California.
Also costing the nation hundreds of millions of dollars to control are diseases imported on plants, according to Martin Feinstein, a USDA plant pathologist at the Linden, N.J., facility. These include citrus canker, which has damaged citrus crops and residential plantings in many Florida counties after arriving from Asia, and sudden oak death, an exotic disease of oak and other woody species that has killed tens of thousands of oak and tanoak trees in California and threatens the US ecosystem wherever susceptible flora flourish.