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Agriculture

Beagles help the USDA detect animal diseases in cargo. Sen. Ernst pushes for 'stable' funding to train them

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Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Customs and Border Protection
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This beagle is trained at the USDA's National Detector Dog Center. It can sniff out cargo and baggage for unauthorized meats, fruits and vegetables that could transport foreign animal diseases, like African Swine Fever, into the U.S.

U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, is partnering with a Georgia Democrat on legislation that would secure federal funding to train dogs that can detect foreign animal diseases. Ernst said the dogs are a “key tool” with bird flu now in Iowa and African Swine Fever near the U.S.

The USDA’s “Beagle Brigade” can sniff out passenger baggage and cargo to detect foods such as fruits, vegetables and meats that could carry foreign animal diseases. According to the USDA, the beagles “search for prohibited agricultural products at cargo facilities and major U.S. ports of entry” such as airports.

Ernst and U.S. Sen. Rev. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga. want the dogs’ training center in Newnan, Georgia to be backed by a reliable source of funding.

“They're a key tool in protecting against some of these diseases before they come into the U.S.,” Ernst said.

“They use some of them in airports because of course people bring in unauthorized goods through TSA and other means. So we see that there,” Ernst said. “We do see them being used at the borders as people are bringing goods over the borders as well. We know that they’re out there. They work.”

The dogs’ training center in Georgia gets about $7 million a year – largely from traveler and cargo user fees that tend to fluctuate. Ernst said these fees are “really unstable.”

“It’s that wild swings in funding that don’t allow the consistencies that we need to make sure we’re protecting our goods here in the United States,” she said.

Under the legislation, funding would come through Congress, Ernst said, which would appropriate money specifically for the National Detector Dog Training Center.

“It would be a stable funding source,” Ernst said. “Every year they would know that these are the funds coming from Congress into our coffers, rather than maybe one year you do have a lot of user fees, the next year you have very few user fees.”

The bill was introduced in the Senate in February. It was referred to the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry.