August is Tree Check Month, thanks to the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), which urges each of us to examine tree bark for signs of Asian Longhorned Beetle damage. Protecting the nation’s forests from invasive insects is just one of the responsibilities of APHIS, part of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), with a broad mission “to protect the health and value of American agriculture and natural resources.” About 7,000 employees around the country and overseas strive to improve animal and plant health, eradicate agricultural pests and diseases and prevent crop and natural resource damage by wildlife. Besides its headquarters in DC, the agency maintains over 500 offices, laboratories, and specialized facilities around the US and over 50 sites in other countries (such as a new sterile screwworm-rearing facility in Panama!).
Established in 1972, APHIS consolidated the work of various older components of the USDA. Back in 1883, the USDA established the department’s first regulatory program, the Veterinary Division, which later became the Bureau of Animal Industry (BAI). BAI responsibilities included promoting livestock disease research and enforcing animal import regulations, while plant import regulations were enforced by the Federal Horticultural Board. The USDA’s animal and plant regulatory functions were combined in 1971 to create the new Animal and Plant Health Services, and the missing “I” in APHIS was introduced in 1972, when inspection divisions for meat and poultry were added (though meat and poultry inspections were moved to the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service in 1977). The APHIS mission grew again in 1985 when it took on regulation of biotechnology that affects plant and animal health and when the Interior Department’s Animal Damage Control Program shifted to APHIS and became Wildlife Services. In 2002, most APHIS port inspection activities were taken over by the new Department of Homeland Security.
Today, APHIS is divided into six operational program units (Animal Care, Biotechnology Regulatory Services, International Services and Trade Support Team, Plant Protection and Quarantine, Veterinary Services and Wildlife Services), plus management support units and offices that support government-wide initiatives. The agency has been granted authority under the Animal Welfare Act, the Animal Health Protection Act, the Animal Damage Control Act and other key federal statutes.
An APHIS veteran of more than two decades, Kevin Shea, was appointed administrator on June 18. With responsibilities ranging from the welfare of captive orcas to the environmental risks of GMO sugar beets, Shea confronts diverse challenges. In a July 2nd letter to APHIS stakeholders, he emphasized the agency’s reliance on data in decision-making.
This proclivity is reflected in the agency’s many research initiatives, such as leading international investigations into pollutants and diseases threatening honeybees, which annually pollinate $30 billion worth of crops in the US alone.
Shea’s letter also identifies his key priorities for APHIS in the coming years, including:
- Completing a 3-decade effort to eradicate boll weevil in the US;
- Establishing an effective national feral swine control program;
- Implementing a functioning animal disease traceability program;
- Achieving goals to safely move technology to market faster; and
- Implementing a multi-national system that reduces threat of tree pests from Asia and other countries.
Consistent with other agencies’ efforts to shrink the federal footprint, the administrator also expects to consolidate APHIS locations with the closing of 15 offices domestically and 5 internationally in the near term. “From a business standpoint,” Shea adds, “we need to identify more non-regulatory solutions.” While continuing in its regulatory role, the agency he envisions in the future will endeavor to discover and implement “new approaches [that] are likely to allow greater flexibility for both APHIS and industry.”