Washington — Federal agencies charged with monitoring animal imports are spread too thin and don't have enough of a clear, overall vision to effectively keep animal diseases from entering the United States, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO).
The problem, first reported by DVM Newsmagazine back in March, is that with four agencies—the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Fish and Wildlife Services (FWS), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP)—all in charge of different pieces of the animal import puzzle, there are significant "gaps that could allow the introduction and spread of zoonotic diseases and diseases affecting wildlife," GAO says in its November 2010 report, titled "Live Animal Imports: Agencies Need Better Collaboration to Reduce the Risk of Animal-Related Diseases."
"No single entity has comprehensive responsibility for the zoonotic and animal disease risks posed by live animal imports," states GAO, noting that the United States legally imported more than 1 billion live animals from 2005 to 2008.Puppy imports are posing an increasing threat to the health of companion animals, thanks to Americans' growing appetite for purebred puppies and a crackdown on domestic puppy mill operations, according to sources from DVM Newsmagazine's March report titled "Breed Wars." And the current system of monitoring puppy imports leaves many dangerous loopholes, officials say.
"One thing that really concerns veterinarians is, underage puppies come in and not only are they at greater risk of zoonotic diseases, but also other canine diseases," Nina Marano, DVM, of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) Division of Global Migration and Quarantine, told DVM Newsmagazine in March. "It is a concern. It's a consumer issue; it's a public health issue; it's a veterinary issue. Really, it's a moral and ethical issue."
CDC has a rough idea of how many puppies are crossing United States borders, but only anecdotally, Marano explained.
"The fact is that we have a very big country and many, many ports of entry to monitor," she continued. "We've been looking at this closely over the last five to six years and ... the takeaway message is that, anecdotally, we do believe there has been an increase in imported animals."
But an increase in animal imports does not equal an increase in resources to monitor those imports for disease, notes the new GAO report. The United States is the world's leading import market for live animals, but the GAO says zoonotic diseases have represented about 75 percent of new emerging infectious diseases over the last few years.
What's lacking is an overall plan of attack and system of accountability for monitoring animal imports, suggests GAO. Five statutes govern animal importation—the Animal Health Protection Act (USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service), the Lacey Act (FWS), the Endangered Species Act of 1973 (FWS), the Public Health Service Act (CDC), and the Tariff Act of 1930 (CBP)—and they weren't designed to work in tandem.
"As we have previously reported, when responsibilities cut across more than one federal agency—as they do for the regulation of live animal imports to prevent the introduction and spread of diseases—it is important for agencies to work collaboratively," says GAO. "The federal government must identify ways to deliver results more efficiently in a way that is consistent with its multiple demands and limited resources."
CBP is responsible for overseeing all imports and enforcing the regulations set forth by APHIS, CDC and FWS. USDA APHIS veterinarians inspect live animal imports at 15 ports along the Mexican border, 20 ports along the Canadian border, 30 airport locations across the United States and maintain several animal quarantine facilities. CDC staff are not present at all ports of entry but rely on APHIS, CBP and FWS to enforce its regulations. CDC also maintains 20 quarantine stations across the United States. FWS has about 120 wildlife inspectors to handle all shipments at 49 ports of entry nationwide, as well as seven ports on the Mexican border, 24 ports on the Canadian border and 18 other air, ocean and rail ports.