Battling High Food Prices One Bug at a Time

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Before you bite into your dinner, do you know where it came from? What might have hitched a ride along with it? Tisha Thompson shows you how a small army is trying to protect the price of your dinner by standing guard at the border. (Published Tuesday, Aug 12, 2014)

    He's cute, fuzzy and saving you thousands of dollars every year: Hudson the Beagle is trained to hunt down what travelers may be hiding.

    Hudson is looking for pests that could hitch a ride into the U.S. on an airplane, clinging to food or plants shipped into the country or even carried on in luggage. And that means he is a big part of keeping the U.S. food supply secure and preventing spikes in grocery bills.

    "We go where his nose takes us," said Jennifer Jones on a recent visit to Dulles International Airport. She’s the canine officer with U.S. Customs and Border Protection who accompanies Hudson everywhere he goes.

    "They didn't want a big enforcement kind of dog like a shepherd, something that would scare people," she said. "They wanted something that would be cute and friendly but yet had the nose to do the job."

    As he wandered through a long line of world travelers, Hudson rooted out a cheese sandwich, bananas, a package of tulip bulbs, two oranges, a bag of cherry pits and a grapefruit in less than ten minutes.

    Why does one grapefruit matter so much? To find out, the News4 I-Team went to another part of the U.S.' food safety net: a warehouse in Baltimore, where three men spend hours cutting, stabbing and sorting through the tiniest of the tiny.

    Instead of their noses, David Ng said he and his officers use their eyes to inspect cargo coming into the Port of Baltimore. "We're the frontline at Customs and Border Protection in preventing the introduction of foreign, invasive pests," Ng said.

    And the stakes are high. Coffee prices have recently skyrocketed because of coffee rust, a fungus that's destroyed almost half of all the coffee plants in South America.

    "It will affect how much you pay for at the grocery stores,” Ng explained. “Things are going to cost a lot more because there's less production."

    He said they don't want something similar to happen here. But prevention requires patience. "We'll go through a lot of this by hand to see if we see anything that stands out," Ng said as he and his officer sorted through thousands of grains.

    But they don’t just search the contents. They also look at what they came in, from the cardboard boxes to the wooden pallets. They even inspect the shipping containers themselves, looking for what they call hitchhikers.

    Ng said, "Different pests may fly into containers, a lot of snails we get attached to the outside of containers while they're waiting to get loaded onto ships.

    Inspectors suspect the hated Emerald Ash Borer entered the US in wood packing material. It has now decimated millions of ash trees in Maryland, Virginia and 21 other states.

    They're huge compared to what inspectors worry could be the single largest threat to our food supply: the Khapra beetle.

    Ng says it just takes one tiny pest – smaller than the tip of a tweezer – to infest and destroy grain.

    US Customs and Border Protection officials told the I-Team inspectors found about six Khapra beetles in their searches in 2005. Last year, they unearthed more than 140.

    Both Ng and his partner Jason Koliopoulos have found Khapra beetles in Baltimore.

    During the I-Team's visit, they found bay leaves with worrisome spots and cumin seed containing something that just didn’t look like the others.

    "That's asphodeus fistulosus," Ng said. In other words, it's onion weed, an invasive plant that can hurt the US farming and cattle industry.

    Ng quarantined and later destroyed the entire shipment of cumin.

    Back at the airport, Hudson sent all his finds, including that grapefruit, to inspectors at Dulles Airport who X-ray, hack, cut and seize hundreds of items from world travelers every day.

    They take all of the cured meat, most flower seeds and all kinds of fruits and vegetables.

    "The mangos get a weevil that will actually live in the seed," Jones explained as an inspector used a machete to cut the green fruit into two.

    She said if you're not sure if you can bring it in, declare it. The worst that can happen to you is they take it away.

    If you don't declare it, that's when you can face fines ranging from $300 to $1,000 for something as simple as a single grapefruit.

    Remember that grapefruit from Europe?

    It had a tiny speck that inspectors told us could have caused a world of damage if not for Hudson, the fearless furball protecting you from rising food prices.