Sunday, June 28, 2009

An unexpected visit from USDA

Oh boy, did I tense up when I came home and found a card from an investigator from the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) a few days ago. I've been so consumed with work, I completely forgot to call back. He came by once again and spoke to my mom and he finally got ahold of me via phone and asked if I had a few minutes for a meeting concerning a shipment of plants from China that was intercepted by customs and DID NOT receive.

So, I've been importing plants from China for years and I've never had an issue with their arrival to my doorstep until this spring. Apparently, according to my supplier, the shipping company lost the phytosanitary certificate. Without this document, which states that the plants have been handled and inspected for pests and diseases, plants will not be allowed into the country. Many shipments make it through without being thoroughly inspected, but every now and then, something appears iffy and they investigate.

On Wednesday morning, I met with the investigator and had a lengthy discussion.
I actually found the experience to be quite informative as I mentioned to him that I once thought of pursuing a job with APHIS (Animal Plant Health Inspection Service) and the USDA. He was pleasant and easy to talk to and understood my line of work (as he also had a meeting with a colleague of mine on the Kitsap Peninsula....yes, him). I made it clear that I was familiar with the protocols and procedures and he kept trying to reassure me that I wasn't in any trouble or at fault after I described the situation. He is requesting a bit of paperwork, which is not a big deal (just a inconvenience) and we had a lengthy talk about how all this information he's requesting will be processed and I addressed my concerns about "ratting out" my contact in China.

He had a file folder full of information which included photos of the parcel they detained, copies of invoices and was I surprised to see print outs of the bio on my website and even print outs of this blog!! It was a full on investigation!! YIKES.

So yeah, when the package arrived earlier this spring at LAX, the shipping company called me saying that USDA was holding it and I had the option of either paying a fee or having the parcel destroyed. I asked to talk with someone from USDA about the reason, but the representative I spoke with was Chinese and was not clear about exactly why customs confiscated it.

I emailed my contact in China and asked what could have happened and she told me that the shipping company lost the "Phyto". However, according to the investigator, it appeared as if they went through a loophole by sending it through a shipping middleman and noted on the custom form "Garden tools/accessories". I was asked if I knew why they stated that on the form and I told them that I assumed that it was the closest thing from a list of choices they had on the form, but I honestly didn't know why they didn't just state that live plants were inside. If the Phyto was in there, it wouldn't have been an issue.

The investigator said that if I decide to do business with this company again, I have to ensure that she follows the protocols or else I'm the one liable should an issue come up. He says that they won't go to China and get them in trouble, but at the same time, my contact's name has been dropped and they will now seek out shipments that may come from them. USDA can't do anything about it, but they can penalize me if this continues.

He told me a story of a nurseryman in Burien that had his operations quarantined for 2 months because he saw something fly out of a box that went directly to him and not through customs and USDA first. Within an hour, customs officials came in and basically ransacked his garden and nursery trying to identify the insect in question. That's just freakin' insane!!

Then we had an in-depth discussion about USDA and APHIS policies about plant importation and discussed CITES (Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species). Being a orchid enthusiast, I told him about a paper I wrote as an undergrad concerning the issues between growers/researchers and the USDA/Fish and Wildlife and their stricter regulations in the distribution of live plant material. He couldn't agree more about how nebulous a lot of the information is out there and the lack of public awareness about these issues; the stricter the regulations, the more likely people will go through loopholes and "under the table" transactions. While it has gotten a lot better over the years, we still stressed the need for more knowledgeable people within USDA and APHIS to set the regulations straight, disseminate information in clear and understandable language, and the need for collaboration between growers, researchers, the federal government so they're aware of our efforts in conservation and promoting biodiversity. After that talk, he mentioned that I would be a credible and much sought after individual to work for the USDA/APHIS having gone through all this and seeing my commitment to my work. I thought that was pretty nice of him to say. He encouraged me to check out the various openings USDA has now and he offered to get me in touch with customs officials at the inspection station in SeaTac International Airport to see them at work.

Finally, he offered his services to me (and my colleague in Indianola) should we have any further issues or inquiries.

Anyway, I'm not too worried. I just want to know what's going on with my contact in China and the Chinese department of forestry and agriculture. I don't ever order large quantities, but they have some interesting things I'm evaluating and propagating here at Landwave. I know it's very inconvenient to issue a Phyto, but you'd think that the economic ties and constant trade between the US and China can make the process much less intensive.

The scary thing is, we're on the radar and I'm not sure how long this investigation will go on and how much more they're going to hound me. I still stand by the fact that I have done no wrong doing and I've followed the protocols to the best of my abilities.

I'll keep you posted on what unfolds.



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