DULLES, Va. — Phillip has a preference for small handbags. Larger bags may yield bigger loads of contraband, but he doesn't care. For him, it all pays the same. A single Snausage, or maybe a Pup-Peroni dog treat.
Wearing his dark blue vest that says, "Protecting American Agriculture" above the U.S. Department of Homeland Security logo, he turns alert. The subject is, at first, oblivious. She has her roller bag, her shoulder bag, she ambles toward the exit.
Phillip's partner, U.S. Customs and Border Protection K-9 Officer Valerie Woo, moves in, makes the collar. From that shoulder bag comes a ham sandwich secured in plastic wrap that Woo says was a snack on the 1:10 p.m. Air China flight arriving in Dulles from Beijing.
It is the first of three ham sandwiches Phillip and fellow canine team member Beazley find from that flight alone. Phillip also sniffs out two apples and two oranges.
Prohibited items include meats, fresh fruits and vegetables, plants, seeds, soil and products made from animal or plantmaterials, the details predicated on a traveler's embarkation point. But it is the pork that is most troubling right now.
African swine fever is estimated to have killed a quarter of the world's pork population since last August, including half of China's swine herd, the world's biggest. Since then, the disease has spread to Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, North Korea and the Philippines. It has been reported in Romania, Poland, Bulgaria and other Eastern European countries; in September, it was found near Saint-Léger in Belgium.
African swine fever has invaded more than 40 countries to date. There is no cure, no vaccine, and while the virus is not dangerous for humans, American pork producers and the U.S. Agriculture Department are terrified that it will reach North American soil.
This is themost challenging time of year, says Steve Sapp, public affairs officer of the Mid-Atlantic region for CBP. International travelers pour in from abroad bearing foodstuffs as gifts, as holiday fare. Grandma's famous siu mai dumplings, the crispy rice cakes with pork floss the family enjoyed while vacationing in Vietnam. Food is central to the holidays, and experts say human travel is the most likely vector for the disease.
DavidNg, a supervisory agriculture specialist for CBP, estimates officers seize 100 to 400 pounds of contraband at Dulles each day, "99% of it food."
Phillip and Beazley have found mango weevil, pink hibiscus mealybug and citrus canker. They are trained to identify five things: apples, mango, citrus, beef and pork. But right now, the bulk of their olfactory attentions are paid to that last one. The USDA is in the process of ramping up their canine presence, adding 60 beagle teams for a total of 179 to expand screenings of incoming international flights, commercial ports, seaports and cargo planes.
Why beagles? They are friendly, nonthreatening, smart and have great noses. Also - and Woo says this may be the most important - they are exceedingly food-motivated. There are larger breeds patrolling for U.S. currency and firearms, different dogs that sniff out narcotics, still others looking for bombs. Teams at the airport tend to be beagles or beagle mixes, animals plucked from shelters and rescues around the country to get a second chance.
"We could look at 100 dogs and not come back with any," said Kathleen Warfield, training specialist at the National Detector Dog Training Center in Georgia. "And once they go through initial testing, the percentage of those dogs that make it is maybe 70%. We want searching to be their main priority."
The dogs start slowly with a progressive training, all positive reinforcement with treats and a clicker, moving from boxes either empty or containing illicit food items to more complicated luggage with its zippers and multiple compartments. They train for 10 weeks, dog and human partner, learning each other, practicing, smelling smells.
"When a beagle walks into a room, they are checking everything," Warfield says. "They can walk by and smell a whole line of bags or a moving carousel. The dogs savemillions of dollars in law enforcement."
The African swine fever virus can live for months on infected meat or cold cuts, on tainted feed, on animal feed additives. Say it arrived stateside via ham sandwich: That sandwich could be tossed in a dumpster or by the side of the road and one of the country's 5 million wild hogs could snarf it, contracting the virus. That virus could then travel via soft tick to domesticated hogs.
The virus has a mortality rate of nearly 100% for domesticated pigs, leaving slaughter as the only option for disease control. A vaccine to curtail the virus has been hindered by a budgetary squeeze that discontinued funding for research at Plum Island Animal Disease Center in 2003. Research into African swine fever was halted when the USDA transferred responsibility of the Plum Island facility to the Department of Homeland Security. The facility modified its priorities, focusing on foot-and-mouth disease and disbanding the swine fever team. Research efforts didn't resume until 2010, leaving a vaccine still a long way off.
"The one thing you have to recognize now is ASF is on the borders of western Europe, an endemic disease in half the world," said Daniel Rock, who was the lead researcher for the Plum Island ASF team and who is now in the Department of Pathobiology at the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois. "The threat for all pig-producing regions has increased exponentially and will remain that way for the indefinite future — a very serious, if not grave, matter."
He explains that warthogs, wild boar and bush pigs are natural hosts for the virus, often spread efficiently, but nonfatally, between wild animals via soft ticks. It is when the virus infects domesticated pigs that things become dire.
An infection on American soil would likely halt all U.S. pork exports, according to the USDA, a sector that totaled $6.39 billion in sales in 2018.