CHICAGO — Biosecurity and enhanced handling and storage of feed ingredients are a couple ways that U.S. pork industry officials are working to head off the entry of foreign animal diseases into the United States.
Another way has four paws, an incredibly sensitive nose, velvety soft ears and was doggedly making his way along a moving baggage carousel.
“Jarvis, sniff,” said Sarah Went to her K9 partner. The small beagle needed little encouragement as he sniffed around, under, over the bags coming off the flights, one from China and one from Nigeria via London.
He paused at the green duffel bag and his tail began to wag as he stopped at that bag. Went, a U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agriculture specialist and K9 handler, pulled the bag off the belt as Jarvis hopped off, continuing to sniff at the bag. Then he sat.
Katy Houlmont, another CBP agriculture specialist K9 handler and her dog, Emeril, a beagle/coonhound mix, walked over. Jarvis was sitting at the green bag, his tail wagging. Emeril’s tail began to wag as his nose probed the curves and folds of the duffel bag. Then he sat next to it, too, the signal that the dogs had found something.
Houlmont pulled out packages of fresh fruit, wrapped in plastic, fresh leaves and herbs, also wrapped in plastic. Jars of a homemade beef product were wrapped in foil before being wrapped in plastic and then in clothing.
The bag was a find for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agriculture specialists and their K9 partners of one of the USDA’s Beagle Brigades, this one at O’Hare International Airport. But it wasn’t the first that day or even of the week.
“We find things every day,” said Houlmont, who has been with U.S. Customs and Border Protection since 2005. She and Emeril have been a team since 2013.
At airports and other U.S. ports of entry, the Beagle Brigades search luggage, from carry-ons, purses, and backpacks to checked luggage, for fruits, vegetables, plants and meat that are not allowed to be brought into the United States.
“We work the lines as passengers line up to enter the United States. You’ll see us working the baggage carousels after you go through customs,” said Houlmont.
Food Items Not Allowed
Apples, oranges and citrus, pork and beef are just some of the food items that are not allowed to be brought into the United States for fear of those items transmitting a foreign animal or plant disease or pest into the country.
“Many times, it’s just people not knowing. They’re not doing it harmfully,” Houlmont said.
With heightened concerns about African Swine Fever entering the U.S., Houlmont said pork products from China always have been prohibited and are confiscated when they are found in luggage. Travelers sometimes go to unique measures to conceal those pork products.
“Some people use wrapping that looks like soup or poultry packaging, because cooked poultry products are allowed in from China. But when you open up the commercial packaging, it’s pork sausage. We’ve been seeing a lot of that,” she said.
The dogs of the Beagle Brigade are trained to detect certain scents. From there, their sensitive noses do scent association. So even though the package might be cooked chicken on the outside, their noses tell them — and their handlers — the rest of the story.
“That’s where the dogs are really handy because they alert to that. We see it as poultry but they are no, no, no, no, I don’t think is, and we open it and it’s pork,” Houlmont said.
When Emeril or one of the other K9s alerts, by way of sniffing, then tail wagging, with a sit next to the suspect package or bag being their final signal, the officers typically ask a passenger if they have food items with them.
“If we ask and they have an apple, we take the apple and mark their customs declaration,” Houlmont said. If the dogs find a large quantity of a prohibited item, they go back to customs for a secondary X-ray of their luggage.
Since the dogs do scent association and are trained to sniff out organic material, they have found other items.
“He has found marijuana. He once found $37,000 wrapped inside a bunch of fruits and vegetables because the passenger was trying to conceal it,” Houlmont said.
Passengers are a mix of apologetic and angry, and the job is not without risks.
“He has been kicked and pushed by passengers,” Houlmont said. The K9s of the Beagle Brigade are federal officers so there are penalties for assaulting or injuring them, just as there are for assaulting their human partners.
As the table in the CBP’s lab room attests, the finds are constant — and varied. Fresh curry leaves, dried lemons that resemble walnuts, fresh lentils and fresh figs were part of the previous day’s finds.
“I like it because every day is something different,” Houlmont said.