De-bugging Mother's Day

As an agency within the Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Customs and Border Protection is charged with, among other things, keeping terrorists out of the country. This week, its officers are hard at work in a warehouse under the LAX flight path scrutinizing new U.S. arrivals for their danger potential.

The tools of their trade aren't guns and walkie-talkies, they're jeweler's loupes, tweezers, bottles of ethyl acetate, eye droppers and things that look like dental scalers. The bad guys these good guys are looking for are agricultural pests that, according to the CBP, cost the U.S. about $136 billion in lost agriculture revenue every year.

Mothers Day Flowers-inspectors-LAX May 2012 081.jpgWith the approach of Mother's Day, inspectors this week are probing bundles of flowers. By week's end, most of these botanical beauties will be somebody's way of thanking mom for going to all that trouble. The CBP has some 2,360 agriculture specialists sticking their noses into product queuing at 167 ports of entry across the country. The agency will not divulge the number of agents in L.A., but one one them is Jessie Frias. Wearing black rubber gloves, the senior agriculture specialist extracts a dozen long-stemmed red roses from an elongated cardboard box, and liberates them from their cellophane wrapper. He examines the underside of the leaves as carefully as if they secreted the winning lottery numbers. Then he holds the bunch upside-down, shakes it and spanks it as you would a newborn. Vegetal debris falls onto the white table, and he looks that over, too, sometimes through the loupe that renders the utterly unseeable barely visible.

A shipment of flowers might include 2,000 boxes from 130 to 150 growers, there might be 10 or 25 dozen stems or flowers in a box and they might come from Colombia, Ecuador, New Zealand or Asia. On this day most are roses or orchids. A minimum of 2 percent of each shipment is sent to inspection. If the specialist detects something fishy--a yellow cast along the leaf vein, rusty spots, bumps, ridges or an actual critter, the whole box is deemed "actionable," and sent for further inspection to an entomologist at a USDA lab nearby. When that happens, every box of that kind of flower from that particular grower is held until a threat determination can be made. Sometimes a threat can be neutralized with fumigation.

L.A. is the No. 2 port of entry for flowers imported during the Mother's Day season. On an average day, CBP specialists here seize 665 prohibited plants, meat and animal byproducts, and intercept more than 70 agricultural pests that could threaten U.S. resources.

The warehouse, a 45,000-square-foot refrigerated facility belonging to Gourmet Logistics, is the Ellis Island of horticultural immigrants. In addition to the inspectors checking for disease or entomological turpitude, it's equipped to handle a range of perishables and all the paperwork and transportation required to get a commodity off a plane and into consumers' hands under the government seal of approval. There are four forced-air pre-cooling tunnels, a hydrocooler and the meteorologically confusing "dry fog system." Pallets are stacked higher than a basketball rim; randomly selected specimens are given to the specialists to pass judgment on their migrant status.

Justice is served quickly because these travelers are already jet-lagged, and sending mom a rose on life support is sending the wrong message. Agriculture specialists conduct examinations within 24 hours of when a plane lands, or sooner, and the USDA can examine an actionable specimen within an hour. Once the shipment has passed muster, the whole colorful crowd can be at the downtown flower market within a day, maybe two if treatment is required.

The ag specialists are trained to look for certain things, but they all come equipped with expertise. Robin Marten, who is getting extremely personal with a box of sweet little wedding-white dendrobium orchids from Malaysia, has a degree in animal science. Hugo Rodriguez, who is peering into the soul of a pink cymbidium orchid from New Zealand, is a biologist. Orchids present a relatively high risk for pests; roses relatively low, and most of the ones found on them are not actionable--that is, they might compromise a flower's loveliness, but they're not going to give another crop the cooties.

Mothers Day Flowers-spotted-LAX May 2012 053.jpgThe most interesting thing about the dendrobiums is their packing material--a Malaysian newspaper. Marten deems them fit. Rodriguez has a more puzzling customer--a strange red line runs up the top of one stem, and there are weird black spots along the bottom of another. Rodriguez doesn't know the cause, but these potential perps of pestilence are pronounced guilty until proved innocent. Their box is wrapped in yellow warning tape, like a crime scene, and shipped to the USDA. If found to be diseased, all the boxes of orchids from this grower will be destroyed. A single cymbidium stem sells retail for $30-$35, and a single box contains 10 stems, so this precious cargo might end up being dead weight Down Under.

Plenty of bad border-crossers are also homegrown threats--thrips, moths, acari (mites) and aphids proliferate here, and we don't want anybody else's surplus villainy. But the most unwelcome hitchhikers are exotic species the U.S. is trying desperately to exclude from the melting pot. Growers in countries harboring such critters must file a "Phytosanitory certificate," which promises that none of their product in the shipment was grown in areas where the culprit is known to live.

Having sent the suspect cymbidiums to further review, Rodriguez dons a thick leather glove and unsheaths a particularly thorny rose stem. How often does he get stabbed? "Every day."

Not this time, but after the shakedown he draws a blue ink circle around a spot on the table the size of the dot in this i. He's not sure what it is, but suspects something from the order diptera. Most people would call it a fly. He deftly collects it on a little, tiny brush with bristles smaller than an eyelash, drops the larval life form into a specimen bottle and kicks it to the USDA. Its box of origin is crime-taped and sent to the holding cell.

Marten is busy with a shell-pink bunch of roses any mother would love to receive. A reporter from a local radio station leans in, squints and points to the closed buds. "And what is that?" he asks, leaving the eavesdroppers to wonder if the centerpiece on his mother's dinner table this Sunday will be featuring a winsome clutch of dandelions.

Photos: U.S. Customs and Border Protection

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