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Plant Protection Today - Using Data to Tackle the Dangerous Mail Pest Pathway

Using Data to Tackle the Dangerous Mail Pest Pathway
February 26, 2021

(Cover Image by Cybrain,

By Greg Rosenthal

Data Analytics also Has a Nose for Prohibited Ag Products

Ordering online is so easy it can become dangerous for America’s agricultural and natural resources. Consumers and companies can order agricultural products with a few mouse clicks, not knowing the seller is overseas. Then the seller could ship illegal seeds, plants, fruits, meats, or other agricultural items via mail from far away. What’s inside those foreign packages could introduce devastating animal or plant pests and diseases into our country. The result: severe damage to crops, livestock, poultry, or ecosystems—and the livelihoods of many Americans who depend on those resources.

PPQ-trained detector dogs are good at finding smuggled agricultural items in mail and express courier packages, but PPQ needs more tools to address the mail pest pathway.

That’s where USDA-Plant Protection and Quarantine (PPQ) comes in. Our Smuggling Interdiction and Trade Compliance (SITC) unit works closely with U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), and together they intercept restricted and prohibited agricultural items arriving in our country through the mail. They’ve been using the sharp noses of detector dogs to help sniff out illegal shipments at the facilities receiving these packages. But PPQ is also developing another “sharp nose” for the job: data analytics and visualization.

The PPQ Mail Interception Dashboard

The PPQ Mail Interception Dashboard lets users explore mail interception data on a high-tech, interactive map

Here’s a real-world scenario. Moon cakes are traditionally associated with the Asian Mid-Autumn Festival. However, the cakes can contain egg yolk that could introduce highly pathogenic avian influenza into our country.

Leading up to the festival, illegal moon cakes are smuggled into the United States. The PPQ Mail Interception Dashboard can filter this data to show where CBP and SITC have intercepted moon cakes in the past and plot the locations across the United States.

“This dashboard will help us to better understand where violations are located; what products are being imported, from where, and how often; and the pathways that illegal packages travel to the United States,” said Amanda Elkhateeb, National Operations Manager for SITC. “We can turn this information into operations that can help close the mail pest pathways to the United States.”

Just ask SITC Analyst Cory Marker. Part of his job is looking for online sales of prohibited plants, plant products, animals, and animal products.

“We’re looking for hotspots where we see multiple mail interceptions of the same product in the same area,” he said. “Then we can start visiting local markets or specialty stores that are likely to carry these imported items. SITC officers will seize any illegal products they find and educate retailers about U.S. import requirements.”

The Power of Data Visualization

The dashboard can render “heat maps” that show concentrations of mail interceptions of certain types of commodities. “These data have not been viewed on an interactive map in this way before,” Cagle explained. “We’re giving SITC Officers and Analysts up to 4 years of data. They can start to visualize mail interception trends that might never reveal themselves in a paper report, graph, or spreadsheet. When you interact with this data on a map, you can visualize the hotspots that need intervention."

The dashboard pulls in Mail Interception Notices that CBP inspectors have entered into PPQ’s Agricultural Quarantine Activity System database. “The dashboard allows us to explore space and time,” Cagle said. “Using date filters, for example, we can look at mail interception trends during Christmas over the last 4 years. That alerts us to what we can anticipate in the next holiday season so PPQ can be ready.”

Dashboards: Fast and Flexible Tools

“These dashboards are relatively easy to put together, as long as the data is prepared in a way that allows it to function within an interactive dashboard,” Cagle said. “We can also tweak the dashboard based on user feedback quite easily. The dashboard could expand to pull in additional PPQ data in the future. I see its value growing over time.”

This new tool is a win for PPQ in another way. “The dashboard supports PPQ’s strategic initiative for data management,” Elkhateeb said. “That initiative is using the extensive data PPQ collects from the field and ports to drive our policy and operational decisions. Now it’s tackling the mail pest pathway.”

The United Nations declared 2020 as the International Year of Plant Health(IYPH) and then extended the celebration through July1, 2021. This worldwide campaign is promoting the value of our precious plant resources and the need to safeguard them against invasive pests. To celebrate IYPH, each month Plant Protection Today is highlighting how PPQ safeguards America’s agricultural and natural resources against invasive pests, and facilitates the safe trade of agricultural products. Read our article on IYPH to learn more—and how you can join this once-in-a-lifetime event!

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