The government is detecting fewer agricultural pests that could get across the border in insect-infected foods and should hire more inspectors, an Agriculture Department (search) official said.

An official with the Homeland Security Department (search), which now handles those duties, defended the agency's performance but acknowledged a shortfall of about 500 inspectors.

Inspectors intercepted prohibited material 32 percent less often in the past three months of 2003 than they did in the same period of 2002, said John Payne of the Agriculture Department's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

The inspectors had 34 percent fewer interceptions involving passenger baggage (search) and 12 percent fewer in cargo, said Payne, who coordinates his department's work with the Homeland Security Department.

The percentages dropped after about the inspectors left the Agriculture Department and became a part of the Homeland Security Department in early 2002, Payne said Thursday. The shift involved about 2,600 positions, of which about 390 were vacant, he said.

The Homeland Security Department did not act quickly to fill the vacancies, figuring that overlapping training for customs and immigration inspectors was adequate, Payne said. Instead, the vacancies grew.

The department learned, however, that it needs more specialists in agriculture, and it is sending them to the Agriculture Department's training program, he said.

The Homeland Security Department should have the 500 new workers and be fully staffed by April of 2006, said Jim Smith, deputy executive director of agricultural policy. But he disputed the idea that inspections are less effective than they were before the inspectors left the Agriculture Department.

A change in procedure may be the reason inspectors were listing fewer interceptions in passenger luggage, Smith said. To make better use of personnel, the inspectors are now simply tossing out suspect items rather than going through them all to look for agricultural pests, he said.

As for the cargo inspections, it is possible that exporters are being more careful about what they send because of heightened security and outbreaks of plant and animal diseases around the world, Smith said.