Don't be surprised if a beagle saunters by your baggage at LAX; the U.S. Department of Agriculture has expanded its use of dogs to sniff out fruits or meats that are forbidden entry into the United States.
These specially trained beagles have been used at LAX (San Francisco and New York were also test areas) as part of a pilot program since 1984, but now this newly named Beagle Brigade will become a permanent feature at LAX, with a second dog team added in 1987. The canines will also be introduced to other airports throughout the nation.
"These dogs are friendly, accustomed to noise and people, and they have noses that have greatly exceeded our expectations," said Douglas Ladner, a staff officer-field operations for the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services (APHIS), the Department of Agriculture agency supervising the program.
"When we began this pilot program we anticipated the beagles would be right about 60%-70% of the time, but they're at an 80% success ratio and getting better," Ladner added. "We're astounded at their proficiency."
You may find one of these green-jacketed beagles (the jackets read "Protecting American Agriculture" on one side and "Beagle Brigade" on the other) moving around arriving passengers at baggage carrousels and in the arrival area. Held on leashes by their handlers, the beagles are trained to sit down by the suspect piece of luggage and look up at their handlers if they detect the scent of fruit or meat.
The USDA has the responsibility of keeping out anything that could create diseases affecting domestic agriculture. A good example is the Mediterranean fruit fly.
The handlers then snap quarantine cards on the suspect luggage and mark the passenger's customs declarations form with a green "A" that means you can expect to have your bags inspected by APHIS, which works along with customs at the airport.
While someone might be tempted to remove the quarantine card, each passenger has to show the customs declaration form. There is also greater jeopardy of being fined if you are discovered playing games.
The dogs receive a small treat as a reward. The passengers have a different fate in store for them. No fines are imposed for prohibited products if you have declared them, but such items would be confiscated without compensation.
But if you try to smuggle in illicit agricultural items you can be fined $25-$50 on the spot during baggage inspection. The lower amount is imposed if an illicit item is found lying out in the open. "But if something is found wrapped up, like in a shoe or dirty laundry and it appears to be a blatant attempt to bring it in concealed, the fine goes up to $50," Ladner said.
You can contest the charge and ask for a court hearing, but if you lose the hearing, the amount of the fine may go up to $1,000. By April, 1986, APHIS had collected $1 million, all from individual travelers, Ladner added.
"We figure we collect about $40,000 a month, which shows how many people try to circumvent the regulations, which are in place to protect them. The fine can be steep, but we want to keep prohibited items out of the country.
"It cost $1 million to eradicate the Mediterranean fruit fly, and if hoof-and-mouth disease should break out in the United States we estimate it would cost $10 million alone in the first year to stamp it out."
Travelers have several opportunities to amend their declarations and avoid fines, Ladner pointed out. Initially, when the beagle gives an alert, the dog's handler will question the passenger. "They might also look into any hand baggage that caught the dog's attention." A second chance to correct a declaration comes with the standard customs inspection when passengers are asked if they are bringing in any fruits, etc. "And you can still amend it when you go through the separate APHIS inspection," Ladner said.
Once your baggage has been marked, however, you must still go through the APHIS inspection even if you subsequently amend your declaration, Ladner added. "If the declaration form is amended, there should be no penalty unless something else is found."
Many travelers have misconceptions about the hazards of bringing in fruits and fresh meats, Ladner indicated. "There are so many ways parasites and diseases can be transmitted, which really limits the possibilities of bringing such items into the country. As a rule of thumb, even if such foods are processed, leave them alone if it's coming from a country where you can't bring in fresh fruits to start."
Oranges and Avodacos
Parasites, for example, can be found in the peels of oranges and the seeds of avocados. "Passengers sometimes think that once a fruit is peeled or sliced it is then OK to bring in, but organisms can be in any part of the fruit."
Oranges, avocados, mangoes and apples are among the fresh fruits usually brought in illicitly. Ham, pork and sausages are examples of the meats.
In the future, Ladner said, incoming baggage may be X-rayed to detect prohibited fruits and meats.
APHIS can provide a free "Travelers' Tips" brochure that lists entry restrictions on agricultural products from most areas around the world. Write to Travelers' Tips, USDA/APHIS, 700 Federal Building, Hyattsville, Md. 20782. A flyer on the "Beagle Brigade" is also available.
Copies may also be available at the customs public information office at the Bradley terminal at LAX. Questions may also be asked by calling APHIS at (213) 215-2431.