Thursday, May 1, 2008

Those darn pests

We have a wonderful system here for our protection against tainted food and pests. The USDA is an outstanding organization.

No one will ever know the number of people whose lives weren't lost or who otherwise would have lost their health but for the vigilance of the USDA inspectors or the loss of revenue to farmers because of pest infestations.

That is why this story is so alarming.

If the inspectors are compromised we are one step closer to disaster in our food supply.

The great thing is that this appears to happen so infrequently and that it does so is a testament to the hard work and honesty of the inspectors and officials who diligently protect us.

Former USDA officials charged with fraud
Lynn Brezosky: Express-News

BROWNSVILLE — A 19-count federal indictment accuses two former Laredo-based U.S. Department of Agriculture officers and the owner of a pest-control company of teaming up to allow truckloads of infested plants and broccoli to enter the United States while billing for fumigation that didn't occur.

USDA plant protection and quarantine officers Robert Perez, 35, and Jose Homero Reyes, 48, worked with Ambush Exterminators owner Arturo Ramirez, 46, to fraudulently charge the government for fumigation services and the overtime to oversee it, the indictment states.

Charges against Edmundo Melo Jr., a third officer named in an earlier version of the indictment, were dismissed last week after he committed suicide.

Perez and Reyes were responsible for enforcing the Plant Protection Act of 2000, which includes inspecting agricultural products crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. When insects were found on loads, their job was to order and oversee fumigation before the truck left Laredo.

Fumigations generally occur after hours, so officers are paid overtime to ensure it happens. Costs are ultimately passed on to the exporters in Mexico.

Prosecutors allege the officers conspired with Ramirez over three years to submit fraudulent reports for fumigation services and then billed the government for overtime they didn't work. All three are charged with mail-fraud conspiracy, accused of using the U.S. Postal Service to submit false invoices.

The various charges carry maximum penalties that range from five years in prison and a $250,000 fine to up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

All three defendants are out on bond pending further court action.

Attorneys for Reyes and Ramirez did not immediately return calls for comment Wednesday. Perez was not named before the latest indictment and it was unclear whether he had a lawyer.
Melissa O'Dell, a spokeswoman for the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, said foreign pests could easily hop out of trucks during transport and potentially devastate U.S. agriculture.

“They don't necessarily just stay in the plant. They could go on and become established here,” she said. “I know a lot of people don't think about it, but even just bringing a piece of fruit back yourself without knowing what's on that piece, it could cause some substantial damage. It could have a Mediterranean fruit fly or something that could destroy our agriculture industry.”