EVANSVILLE, Ind., May 2 (UPI) -- U.S. Customs and Border Protection plans to deploy 60 beagles to international airports, ports and border crossings to sniff out travelers coming into the country with hidden pork products from regions experiencing African swine fever outbreaks.
The dogs are part of the agency's "Beagle Brigade," which has patrolled ports of entry since the 1980s to protect the nation's agricultural sector from foreign animal diseases.
The agency said it chose beagles because they have a keen sense of smell and a high food drive -- they want to eat even when not hungry.
"Beagles are cute and cuddly and not intimidating," Jessica Anderson, a CBP agricultural specialist canine handlers, said in a news release.
With the African swine fever threat looming, the CBP, working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, decided it was time to expand this program.
The virus -- deadly to pigs, but not transmittable to humans -- has no vaccine or treatment. It is spreading quickly through China and other Asian countries, crippling their pork industries. Experts say the disease could have a similar impact on the American pork industry should it infect the U.S. herd.
"Prevention is our best defense," said Liz Wagstrom, chief veterinarian at the National Pork Producers Council.
It will take a couple of years for the agency to fully train and deploy the new dogs, Wagstrom said. But the existing beagles already are finding hidden pork.
In October, a beagle discovered a roasted pig head from Ecuador in a traveler's luggage. Ecuador does not have an African swine fever outbreak, but the area is positive for classical swine fever, according to the Swine Health Information Center.
And in March, the team stopped an attempt to smuggle 1 million pounds of pork from China into the United States. That investigation, government officials said, is ongoing.
"People will go to great lengths to bring in something they want," Kevin Harriger,executive director for CBP agriculture programs and trade liaison, told Farm Journal's Pork magazine. "Most people don't make the nexus between epidemiology and the spread of a foreign animal disease. They think if they want ham, they'll bring ham into the U.S. with them. It's that simple to them."
In addition to the beagles, pork industry groups are encouraging Congress to fund more agricultural inspectors for America's ports. CPB is short roughly 600 inspectors, Wagstrom said.
Groups like the National Pork Producers Council also are educating farmers on better biosecurity measures, and trying to keep international travelers away from pig farms until their clothing or equipment can be properly sanitized.
"Hopefully the barriers we have are high enough and strong enough to prevent African swine fever from entering the country," Wagstrom said. "But we have to prepare for if they're not."
Industry groups and USDA are working on contingencies if the disease does break through and infect North American pigs, she said.
Over the last few months, the USDA has increased the number of labs able to test for African swine fever in the United States in hopes that early detection will enable the agency to quickly contain an outbreak.
"If it's a small outbreak, containment will be fairly easy," Wagstrom said. "The animals will be humanely euthanized and the farm will be cleaned, and then there will be heavy surveillance of the other pigs in the area. But if it's a larger outbreak, that gets more complicated."
In April, the USDA and several pork industry groups completed a practice exercise on how to respond to outbreaks of various sizes. The groups plan to hold a larger practice exercise this fall that will include officials from Mexico and Canada.
Canada also is increasing its border security to guard against African swine fever by adding beagles and educating farmers on proper biosecurity measures, Wagstrom said.