Trade wins in biosecurity battle

The US CBP is increasingly using inspector dogs. Credit: CBP
The US CBP is increasingly using inspector dogs. Credit: CBP
Fremantle was one of five port authorities involved in the SWASP biosecurity detection system. Credit:Simon Sees, CC BY 2.0
Fremantle was one of five port authorities involved in the SWASP biosecurity detection system. Credit:Simon Sees, CC BY 2.0
US Department of Agriculture inspectors have upped their port presence. Credit: U.S. Department of Agriculture, CC BY 2.0
US Department of Agriculture inspectors have upped their port presence. Credit: U.S. Department of Agriculture, CC BY 2.0
Industry Database

Iain MacIntyre investigates the pioneering programmes at ports that have waged war against invasive species and pests

Ports are proving that their business interests can be both protected and enhanced while simultaneously minimising the potential for pest infestations destroying their local habitat and economy, despite the inherent challenges posed by increasing global trade.

A case in point is the Port of Virginia, which recently gained approval to import perishables from South American countries after completing the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Southeast In-Transit Cold Treatment Pilot programme.

Such containerised imports are now permitted to enter the port directly after completing a two-week cold treatment process as a safeguard against fruit flies and other pests, as well as having secured required unloading clearances prior to a vessel’s arrival.

Already established as the United States East Coast’s leading vegetable exports port, the approval positions the business to reach the same status with imported fruit, explains The Port of Virginia spokesperson Joseph Harris.

“This development will add value to our larger effort to grow the amount of reefer and frozen cargo moving across the Port of Virginia,” he tells Port Strategy.

“As we embarked on the (combined) $700 million expansion of [our] biggest container terminals, part of the plan was to develop more on-terminal infrastructure to handle this type of cargo – it also goes with a goal to diversify our cargo mix as outlined in our larger strategic plan.

“We have always had the necessary infrastructure/personnel to handle reefer cargo, but most of this cargo (South American fresh fruits) traditionally flowed over ports in the northeast and was moved by truck into other markets. With the programme in place here, Virginia is now a destination and we can compete on a more level playing field.”

Building safety bonds

Mr Harris emphasises that The Port of Virginia’s approach in facilitating this new cargo into the domestic market has been that “safety must be built into the supply chain ... it cannot be in addition to”.

“That said, the federal and state government inspectors are critical partners in the movement of this type of cargo and they are leveraging technology and sharing data to drive efficiency. The more closely we work with these partners to understand, develop and install processes, the more efficient and predictable the flow of cargo will be.”

In addition to benefiting shippers and consumers through lower transportation costs and a longer shelf life for this time-sensitive cargo – as well as reducing transportation-related emissions – Mr Harris sees the increase in import volumes providing additional spinoffs.

“[It] could create opportunities for Virginia-based cold storage warehouses and distribution centres to be transload destinations for this type of cargo – the cargo comes to a local warehouse (versus one in the northeast), gets loaded into trucks and moves to its destination.

“An offshoot of that is more equipment in the region – the reefer containers, the equipment needed to keep them cold, the folks to maintain that equipment – and possibly more new cold storage investments.”

Additionally, increased reefer business could mean more USDA inspectors in the market and having that availability could create efficiency and be a factor in driving that business in Virginia. When that equipment, support and infrastructure is readily available in the market, it can create opportunities for exports, allowing all stakeholders to become more competitive on that side of the business.

“So, when we combine all of these elements with our investments to handle refrigerated cargo, we see real potential to expand in this area of business,” says Mr Harris. “In short, this is an opportunity for us and we are out there aggressively courting this business.”

Australia’s SWASP

In Australia, a collaborative initiative between five port authorities and the Western Australian Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development is said to have added a significant layer of protection to marine-introduced pests invading the state’s coast.

Claimed to be a world-first use of molecular techniques by a collaborative marine biosecurity surveillance network, the State-Wide Array Surveillance Program (SWASP) involves 11 ports and spans 11,000 kilometres of coastline.

Described as an “early-warning system”, the multi-award-winning initiative entails comprehensive sampling and testing of the ports’ waters in order to detect and enable early eradication of pest species arriving via vessel hulls.

Ports Australia chief executive Mike Gallacher describes SWASP as a “fantastic example” of ports and a regulator working together to develop innovative and cost-effective means of managing biosecurity threats.

“I am aware that other state regulators are looking to implement this approach because of its effectiveness, simplicity and significant financial savings compared to existing systems,” he says.

Mr Gallacher enthuses that Australia’s ports are “leaders in biosecurity detection and prevention”.

“Biosecurity is a global problem that Australia must deal with to protect our natural assets while also remaining competitive in global trade.

“Australian ports have dedicated officers working on biosecurity matters in conjunction with state and federal regulators to ensure a co-ordinated approach to biosecurity management. Ports work at the direction of government regulators on biosecurity matters but ensure that they are entirely across current and emerging issues so that they can assist the regulators in their duty of securing our borders.”

Labour and levies

However, Mr Gallacher also laments that government staff cuts are increasingly shifting the “detection work” responsibility to industry in Australia. “A shortage of on-the-ground qualified personnel to undertake screening and investigations of ships is delaying the movement of some ships and their trades. This has a serious impact on our ability to effectively trade and impacts the profitability of the Australian supply chain.”

His members are fervently opposed to a government proposal to implement a biosecurity levy on all imported goods arriving into the nation alongside a charge on all commercial vessels.

“This measure is likely to further impact on trade and the Australian supply chain if not implemented correctly, while adding very little to existing biosecurity measures. It is imperative that the introduction of such a funding measure be transparent and assurances given that all monies raised be directed to biosecurity measures that future proof our nation against emerging biosecurity threats.

“There are brilliant minds at our ports which have the tools to assist in securing our borders from biosecurity threats. I would like to see greater interaction between our ports and regulators on discussing innovative solutions and utilising current port solutions to solve this problem instead of new programmes that unnecessarily use taxpayers' money or that hit the bank balance of Australians when purchasing goods, such as the biosecurity imports tax.”

Extra eyes and ears

Across the Tasman Sea – where the threat posed by the brown marmorated stink bug is a current priority for New Zealand regulators, with unavoidable impacts on the supply chain – the Port of Tauranga has also set a biosecurity benchmark.

Alongside the Kiwifruit Vine Health organisation and the Ministry for Primary Industries, it has strived to achieve ‘operational biosecurity excellence’ through such measures as upskilling its frontline workforce to be ‘extra eyes and ears’ regarding potential risks.

Recognised by the inaugural Industry Award in the National Biosecurity Awards in 2017, the initiative is understood to not only be providing additional protection to the region’s vital horticultural industry and improving processing speeds, but is also said to have served as a ‘template’ for other ports.

Port of Tauranga chief executive Mark Cairns says: “It’s about everyone doing their bit and working together to protect New Zealand’s environment and primary industries from unwanted biosecurity risks. By having a heightened awareness of what to look for in day-to-day operations, all staff within the port community can play a part in keeping unwanted pests out of port operations.”


Detector dogs are being increasingly used to screen inbound cargo and passengers for harmful plant pests and foreign animal disease by the United States Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency.

The CBP’s public affairs team tells Port Strategy that the ‘Beagle Brigade’ detector dog programme was first launched by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) at Los Angeles International Airport in 1984. It’s come a long way since then.

In 2000 the programme evolved to Labrador Retrievers being deployed in both the ‘Border Brigade’ on the Mexican and Canadian borders as well as the ‘Cargo Brigade’ in the CBP’s cargo inspection facilities at airports and seaports.

The USDA’s agricultural inspectorate subsequently transferred to the CBP, which currently hosts about 120 agriculture canine teams providing screening at border crossings, preclearance locations, air passenger terminals, cruise terminals, cargo warehouses and mail facilities that process international passengers and commodities. The USDA recently announced it would be working with the CBP to train and deploy 60 additional beagle teams.

“The ability to discriminate and target a specific odour – such as that of an orange or even a live snail – makes dogs an invaluable tool in detecting prohibited agricultural items hidden from view,” says the CBP.

“When it comes to finding prohibited fruit, vegetables, plants and meat products from high-risk countries, the nose knows. A trained agriculture dog can scan a piece of luggage for smuggled or forgotten fruits in mere seconds – understandably, it takes an officer much longer to open and visually inspect the same bag.”

In addition to their important detection work, agriculture canine teams make the public aware of the important role that agriculture plays in the CBP’s overall mission and in the US economy. “The special role of the agriculture detector dog programme in protecting American agriculture and its public appeal make it ideal for public outreach activities. Agriculture canine teams have given thousands of demonstrations to audiences of all ages. At schools, media interviews, fairs or other events, the agriculture detector dog teams are always ready to steal the show, greeting the public with happy faces and wagging tails.”


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