Looking closely

U.S. Customs Inspector Jason Koliopoulos sometimes uses a flashlight and magnifying glass to find minute insects on foodstuffs, such as these bags of jasmine rice from Pakistan. (Baltimore Sun photo by Amy Davis / August 4, 2011)

The sweet aroma of rice fills the air as David Ng steps forward in a Southeast Baltimore warehouse to inspect a shipment of hundreds of sacks of imported basmati rice. He folds back the stitched seams of the 40-pound burlap sacks holding grain that have traveled halfway around the world to Baltimore's Seagirt Marine Terminal.

It doesn't take Ng long to find what he's looking for: cast-off skin of the Khapra beetle, a South Asian insect that is one of the world's most dangerous plant pests — and that is being discovered at U.S. ports with increasing frequency.

"That one's pretty intact," he says as he plucks up the dried husk and puts it in a tiny specimen bottle. Before he's through, Ng will find two sacks with evidence of Khapra infestation, enough to send the entire shipping container back to Pakistan.

Ng is a supervisory agricultural inspector with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, an agency charged with keeping things and people who don't belong in the country from staying here. Some agency employees concentrate on people, but Ng's office works to keep bad stuff from making its way onto the American market.

The Baltimore inspectors look for knockoffs of brand-name products, illegal fireworks, items without required tax labeling, consumer products deemed dangerous, food products from countries with outbreaks of animal diseases, improperly preserved hunting trophies and items made from the bodies of endangered beasts.

"We've seen gorilla meat and monkey meat," Ng said.

Lately, though, Public Enemy No. 1 at the port has been the Khapra beetle, which has been chewing its way across a swath of countries from Bangladesh to Morocco. The beetle is a particular threat to stores of grains and seeds, which it can contaminate in short order. The U.S. Department of Agriculture describes it as "a dirty feeder because it damages more grain kernels than it consumes." People who consume the tainted grain can develop digestive diseases.

In recent months, discoveries of dead Khapra beetles and other tell-tale signs of their presence have soared at U.S. ports. According to Customs, there have been more Khapra beetle finds this year than from 2004-2008 combined.

Ng's specialty is harmful invasive species. The 91/2-year Customs veteran graduated from the University of Maryland in 2001 with a degree in conservation biology. Now he's applying that learning to the detection of insects, snails and other creatures that could destroy American crops or damage its goods if they become established here.

His discovery last week was the first time the Baltimore unit had discovered two Khapra-infested shipments in a single day. Earlier, he and his colleague, Jason Koliopoulos, had found evidence of Khapra contamination in a shipment of jasmine rice — also from Pakistan — spread out in pallets on the floor of the warehouse.

That day, the discoveries were classified as likely Khapra findings. By the next morning, a U.S. Department of Agriculture lab confirmed Ng's suspicions.

It was a good day's hunting for Ng and his colleagues at the office off Dundalk Avenue. Previously, the office had found four shipments with signs of Khapra infestation in the past two months.

"There's been a large rise in Khapra beetle infestation," Ng said. "It could be outbreaks in other countries."

As a result, Customs is scouring the manifests of ships calling in Baltimore and other U.S. ports, looking for shipments of rice — a favorite Khapra hiding place — from affected countries.

The stakes of the discovery of even one cast-off skin are significant. Ng said the Khapra is such a dangerous pest that it is the only species in which evidence of a live insect is not needed to exclude an entire shipment.

For the importer, it means deciding whether to have the shipment destroyed, return it to the country of origin or ship it to another nation that might accept it.

If enough infested shipments are found, additional sanctions can be triggered. Customs recently required all rice shippers from affected countries to provide certification of anti-Khapra treatment and government inspections. Additional evidence of Khapra dangers — such as the two-in-one-day finding in Baltimore — could build a case for additional protective measures. An import ban on rice or other food products from certain countries is not inconceivable.

While the Khapra has been the pest in the spotlight recently, customs officers are on the hunt for other species as well. The agency has had its successes, but it has often been burned when harmful pests have eluded the nation's defenses.

Ng can offer a rogue's gallery of the agency's most-wanted species. They include the brown marmorated stink bug, an insect believed to be of Chinese origin that can devastate orchards and fruit crops; the emerald ash borer, which has already killed 42,000 of Maryland's most widely planted tree; and the Asian longhorn beetle, which damages maple trees and nursery stock, and has caused $41 billion in losses to U.S. agriculture. Then there was the infamous Mediterranean fruit fly, an invasive insect that caused more than $100 million in damage to California crops as that state waged a headline-grabbing war against it in 1982 and 1983.