When Stephen Gardner prowls the commercial produce markets of Los Angeles, he passes the same stalls, vendors, and products he’s inspected countless times




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The Game’s Afoot for

Detective

Stephen

Gardner

By Greg Rosenthal


When Stephen Gardner prowls the commercial produce markets of Los Angeles, he passes the same stalls, vendors, and products he’s inspected countless times before. After nearly 5 years as an officer in APHIS’ Smuggling Interdiction and Trade Compliance (SITC) group, he stays vigilant by constantly looking for changes—any small differences that could uncover a threat to American agriculture.

“You see so many boxes day in and day out, you notice any change, a spot, a mark, or a word,” he says. And then he starts digging for illegal prod­ucts—because he knows the stakes involved in his job.

A case in point: fruit flies. Certain exotic fruit flies riding on smuggled fruit could threaten $7.2 billion worth of U.S. agricultural commodities. Gardner’s home state, California, grows $5.1 billion of these products. The flies can attack more than 400 kinds of host plants, spoiling or destroying the fruit. In addition to lost produc­tion, an infestation could trigger other devastating costs, including control and eradication measures, increased pesticide use, and loss of export markets.

Gardner and his fellow SITC officers patrol the front lines of agricultural trade to help prevent exotic fruit flies—and a myriad of other animal and plant pests and diseases—from entering the United States.

Although Gardner looks for all restricted or prohibited products, he focuses on the greatest threats to American agriculture. These include—among many others—fruit fly host material and poultry products from countries affected by the H5N1 strain of highly pathogenic avian influenza.

”But, even with a target in mind, we must be on the lookout for anything, anytime, any­where,” Gardner notes.


A Vast Universe to Inspect

In SITC’s line of work, the most difficult question could well be: Where to begin?

“We look at all kinds of markets—Asian, Mexican, grocery stores, Costco, Sam’s Club, and craft stores,” Gardner says. In craft stores, potpourri could carry beetles from India and Christmas decora­tions could contain prohibited wood and pinecones.

At food markets, Gardner searches for suspicious differenc­es. When he notices discrepancies in price, quality, or appearance for the same type of commodity, he wants to know whether the prod­ucts all came from the same country under the same certificate. And if any warehouses have changed their configurations, Gardner dives in to see why.

The list of items to check can seem endless. Any of the following animal products could require certification: cooked beef, pork, and chicken; canned and dehydrated soups; noodle bowls; bouillon; medicinal products with animal ingredients; and frozen meat. Some importers have labeled frozen boneless duck and chicken feet as jellyfish, so Gardner checks these pack­ages closely.

Importers have also been known to cover a package’s foreign-language ingredient list with a sticker listing the ingredients in English—and the two don’t always agree. To check the prod­ucts for prohibited meat, SITC officers carry a card listing the words for meat products—such as beef, pork, and chicken—in a variety of languages, including Chinese and Vietnamese. With the card, officers can remove the sticker and verify it against the package.

On the plant product side, Gardner ensures that Szechuan peppers (a citrus fruit) have been heat-treated, licorice melon seeds have been fumigated or cooked, herbs have been certified for any required treatment, and broom bristles contain no seeds. These items just scratch the surface.

At markets and warehouses, inspecting huge freezers packed with boxes can pose spe­cial challenges. If SITC officers suspect a prob­lem, they typically ask the facility employees to move boxes before starting a comprehensive search. The effort can pay off, though, as it did when Gardner’s group found a frozen grapefruit product from Bangladesh that tested positive for citrus canker.

“You never know what you’re going to find, or where you’re going to find it,” Gardner says. In their search for illegal imports and smuggled prohibited products, the nine officers in SITC’s Los Angeles work unit cover 10 counties in Southern California.


Always a Good Cop,

Never a Bad Cop

Gardner seeks to build close relationships with all importers and foreign market mer­chants—even those who violate the regulations. He understands that information gathering is key to smuggling interdiction.

“Our primary goal is to quarantine the product,” Gardner says. “Our second goal is to turn violators into sources for more information. It doesn’t end with this one violator—as soon as one is caught, another’s doing it.”

He notes that, once caught, violators are eager to have their competitors treated the same way. Valuable information begins to flow. “Usually tips from other importers are pretty ac­curate,” he says. “They say it’s in a container at this warehouse and at this time, and they’re right on.” Gardner adds that domestic producers are also happy to feed tips to SITC to stop imported illegal products from undercutting their busi­nesses.

Still, after he seizes their products, Gardner gives violators the personal touch in his low-key, soft-spoken way. “We give them step-by-step instruction and guide them to get their permit,” he says. “We help them get started, and—when needed—we also help them overcome the language barrier. We treat them with respect, answer their questions, and let them know that a human always answers when they call the number on our card.”

After SITC officers officially record viola­tions and seize products, they refer the matter to APHIS’ Investigative and Enforcement Services (IES), which determines whether a fine is war­ranted. If IES investigators also conclude that criminal activity was involved, they refer the case to USDA’s Office of Inspector General. Sepa­rating the inspectors from those who penalize and prosecute helps SITC officers on the beat to remain the good cops.


Casting a Wide Interagency Net

Gardner knows firsthand the value of close collaboration with other agencies at all levels of government. In 2004, he served in the Multi-Agency Smuggled Citrus Budwood Group, which intercepted nearly 4,000 smuggled citrus plants in a major citrus-producing area of California. That bust could be a case study in interagency coopera­tion.

It began when U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) inspectors intercepted three mail shipments from Japan labeled as candy and chocolate. The boxes, however, contained citrus budwood—some of which tested positive for citrus canker. CBP officials passed the information to SITC, and Gardner and his fellow SITC officers in Los Angeles jumped on the case because the budwood was destined for Ventura County.

Together, CBP, APHIS, the California Depart­ment of Food and Agriculture (CDFA), and the Ventura County Agricultural Commissioner’s office traced the budwood shipments. Working closely, the agencies linked the destination ad­dresses—all residential homes—to a local nursery, which they connected to three orchards owned by the Japanese budwood exporter. SITC issued Emergency Action Notifications resulting in the burning of all the grafted budwood in the orchards as well as citrus trees from two of the residences.

APHIS’ management, recognizing the im­portance of the operation, presented Outstanding Achievement Awards to Gardner and 24 members of the budwood group. Reflecting on the case, Gardner notes, “It’s good to know that, even though a lot of things you do are dead ends, they’re not always a dead end. They’re huge to American agriculture.”

That’s why SITC officers relentlessly patrol their beats. And in Los Angeles, Stephen Gardner is always on the prowl.


END


Employee

New Year

Resolutions


W. Ron DeHaven

Administrator

“For APHIS, my resolution is for enhanced professionalism. For APHIS as a whole and for each of us individually, it is important that we act like professionals in how we interact with each other and our stakeholders. Treating others with respect is a given, but we also need to be respon­sive to requests and honor the commitments that we make to each other and to our constituents.

We need to bring our best to the job every day—

to constantly hone our skills and show our profes­sional best in our actions and our appearance. It is on our professionalism that others will form an opinion of us as individuals and as an agency.”

For me personally, my resolution is to con­tinue to try and live a balanced life. Secretary

Johanns has talked about the need for balance—

especially with the professional, physical, spiritual, and personal aspects of our lives. This is difficult, and it’s a significant challenge for me person­ally. To do our best at work, we need this balance. Spirituality has always provided me with a broader perspective on the importance of what we do as well as why and how I accomplish my goals.

And, while exercise and losing weight are com­mon resolutions, I find exercise is a necessary part of balance in my life. It contributes to both physi­cal and mental fitness. Also, I feel strongly that we can’t allow stress at work to compromise our relationships with family and friends. At times, situations at work may interrupt our balance, but ultimately family must come first. I can relate to this very well right now with a new and special family member—just in case anyone hasn’t yet heard about my 1-year-old grandson, Landon!

(By the way, I have pictures!)”


Donna West

Senior Import Specialist, PPQ

“This will be my 28th year with PPQ. And, I have both grown up and moved up within its ranks. With retire­ment near, I think about how I can give back to this wonderful agency.

My resolutions are: to increase my network of colleagues working in agriculture around the world; to mentor employees who want to make a difference in the agency and to help them fulfill their potential; and, to help managers make suc­cession planning a daily goal, especially as us baby boomers move toward retirement. I will keep working as a shepherd of the regulatory process that brings exotic fruits to U.S. consumers. Lastly, I will keep smiling ‘cause I love this agency so much, and I’m lucky to be a part of it!”

Michael Wach

Supervisory Policy Analyst, BRS

“My cubicle looks as if it were ransacked by thieves—thieves who didn’t find what they were looking for. So, I’d like to work on ways of man­aging my clutter, to get rid of old books and papers I’ll never read, to retire stress-relieving squeeze toys I no longer squeeze, to actually have some blank desk space. I just heard on NPR today that former Secretary of State James Baker maintained a completely bare desktop. That’s a goal I’d like to work toward.”

Vanessa Schreier

Plant Health Safeguarding Specialist, PPQ

“Graduating from APHIS’ Advancing Leader Program in 2006 was the highlight of my year. It didn’t come out of a specific resolution on my part. But, by focusing on and questioning what I thought I wanted to learn and who I thought I wanted to be, I became involved in projects more interesting than I could have imagined. Some projects I even initiated on my own! For the New Year, I simply want to see them flourish, but that is no small task. The best I can do is to resolve each day to dedicate my attention to understanding the people and to contributing to the programs that make our agency an exciting place to work.”


Pamela Simpson-Diedrick

Senior Staff Veterinarian, VS

“Each year I make a reso­lution that is eventually broken or forgotten. But this year is different. I’m making

promises that are easy to keep.

I promise to do one good thing for someone every day. This will be done without expectation or return of favor. Mentoring and tutoring are important. So, I’ll participate again in the Partnership in Education program, help with a science fair, and encourage APHIS employees to join a mentoring program.

I also promise to write down every day at least one positive thing that has happened to me. And, I promise to write down every day at least one thing that I could have done differently or improved upon.

Have a Happy New Year! And, as Dr. Martin Luther King said, remember to “Observe with both friend and foe the ordinary rules of courtesy.”


Seth Swafford

Staff Officer for Wildlife Diseases, WS

“My New Year’s resolu­tion—quitting old habits automatically come to mind. But, being proactive instead seems a better choice to ensure change. So, as I ride in an airplane, sitting behind the computer, and eating my in-flight snack—I realize being physi­cally healthier would be a perfect proactive New Year’s resolution. Sure this sounds traditional, and it will likely not last very long, but an honest effort of walking upstairs instead of the using the elevator and walking to the metro in lieu of taking the shuttle bus seem to be easily achievable steps to better health. My improved physical health will likely lead to increased mental health, which is always beneficial when starting a new year.”


Denise Sofranko

Field Specialist for Elephants, AC

“Like most, I find it hard to slow down and think about New Year’s resolu­tions, especially when there is so much going on. This year we have a big challenge ahead. We’ll be reviewing and respond­ing to the comments received on a recent petition about changing the AWA regulations concerning elephants. As you can imagine, there are many perspectives on this issue.

My goal is to keep good focus and help develop the discussions in a way that is respectful, open, and constructive. I care deeply about these animals and want to help find the solutions that will most benefit them. At APHIS, we often find ourselves at these busy intersections where many views come together.

For my personal goals, I also want to keep growing my technical knowledge and grow in other ways like through the APHIS Track II Ad­vancing Leader program that I’m part of. And like many of us, I need to get back on that exercise wagon that I fell off of earlier this year. ;-)”


END

Page 3

PHOTO

Wildlife Services MOU

In October, Richard Turner, of the National Asso­ciation of State Aviation Officials (NASAO), joined William Clay, Deputy Administrator of Wildlife
Services, in signing a 5-year Memorandum of Understanding (MOU). In the MOU, NASAO
recognizes the national leadership and profes­sional expertise of Wildlife Services in resolving wildlife-human conflicts and encourages State aviation offices to seek Wildlife Services assis­tance with wildlife hazards at airports.



Wildlife strikes at airports cause more than $500 million in losses annually to U.S. civil aviation. In 2005, Wildlife Services assisted 667 U.S. and
7 foreign airports to address wildlife hazards.



END

Inside

A

Manager Profile:


Phil Garcia
Director, Plant Protection and Quarantine, Western Region

APHIS Manager Profile

What is your background?

I was born and raised in southern Colorado and studied biology and chemistry at the University of Southern Colorado.

  1   2   3   4   5

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