(Jan. 7) Responding to a chorus of critics who have complained the government’s pest exclusion efforts have been lacking in recent years, U.S. Customs and Border Protection established a new oversight position for its agricultural mission.

The agency on Jan. 2 added the position of deputy executive director for agriculture operational oversight. Kevin Harriger, a 26-year veteran of both the U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Customs, has been appointed to the position, according to a news release.

Lawmakers working on the farm bill in both the House and the Senate have been receptive to industry pleas to move back border inspectors to the USDA.

However, that push by Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Calif., and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., was thwarted by Bush administration objections that the Department of Homeland Security maintain oversight responsibilities of pest exclusion efforts.

Animal Plant Health Inspection Service import inspection functions switched to the DHS as a result of the Department of Homeland Security Act of 2002.

The announcement is a positive step only if it is followed up with sufficient authority and funding, one industry leader said.

“They have elevated agriculture to a serious component at the department, but the real substance will be in the implementation,” said Joel Nelsen, president of California Citrus Mutual, Exeter.

Protecting the budget for agricultural inspection and improving the outreach to stakeholders should be top priorities, he said.

“Will this individual be able to improve on the flaws of the agricultural inspection program?” Nelsen said. “The proof will be in the pudding over the next several months.”

Nelsen said one of the items on the industry’s farm bill wish list was to move border inspection duties back to the USDA, but that won’t happen.

“CBP has insisted on maintaining jurisdiction, and they will get what they asked for, but it is up to them to improve the program to where it once was and better than it has been,” he said. “But they have to know the specialty crop industry is extremely sensitive about the failure of this program in the past few years.”

Nelsen said Customs should increase outreach efforts to the industry and communicate how it is implementing measures to fix flaws in the inspection program. Nelsen noted that Congressional hearings on Jan. 17 would provide an opportunity to probe the issue of Customs’ agricultural mission with top DHS officials.