U.S. Customs and Border Patrol investigators said Tuesday that they intercepted a feared nonnative beetle in bags of rice that arrived at O'Hare International Airport from India, the latest in a surge of discoveries of the hard-to-kill pest that could damage this country's grain industry if it became established.
A khapra beetle cast skin and larvae was discovered Aug. 16 in two, 10-pound bags of rice that were among a shipment of personal household items, Customs spokesman Brian Bell said. It was positively identified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture entomologists.
The beetle, about 2 to 3 mm long, can damage up to 70 percent of grain, and can cause intestinal problems if eaten, officials said. Infestations are difficult to control because the beetle can survive for long periods of time without food or moisture -- including in spices, packaged food and stored grain -- is resistant to chemicals and can hide in tiny cracks and crevices.
If it were to become established in this country, "it's going to disrupt our economy" because of the volume of grain and wheat exported by farmers, Bell said. "Countries know they're getting a clean product (from the U.S.)."
Experts say the number of interceptions of the khapra beetle have increased dramatically in recent years. As of July 26, the bug has been intercepted 100 times nationwide, compared to an average 15 times in 2007-2009 and an average 6 times per year in 2005 and 2006, Bell said. Those shipments mostly have come from northern Africa, the Middle East and parts of Asia, he said.
This is the fourth time the beetle was intercepted at O'Hare this year. It also was found in sacks of rice and beans in January, in a container of tapioca powder in June and in a personal supply of bulgur wheat earlier this month.
Inspectors at Indianapolis International Airport intercepted two khapra beetles last month in a small bag of barley seeds included in a package of personal items being shipped from India to North Carolina. Khapras also were spotted by customs agents this spring at border crossings in Detroit and Port Huron, Mich., and at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.
In 1953, the discovery of khapra beetles in California led to a massive control and eradication effort that went on for 13 years and cost millions. Before the beetles were eliminated, they spread to warehouses, storage bins and mills in Arizona.
The Customs office said last month that it would begin enforcing a federal quarantine established by U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service that restricted importation of rice from countries with known khapra infestations.
They have been called one of the 100 most-feared pests, but they're not the only nonnative species ending up in this country in cargo shipments and the luggage of passengers coming to the U.S. from overseas. U.S. Department of Agriculture data shows that between 2001 and 2010, the number of invasive insects, plants, pathogens and other foreign species intercepted by inspectors grew 44 percent, rising from 64,178 found in 2001 to 92,476 intercepted last year. Most of those foreign pests came from countries in Central and South America and the Caribbean.
Kelly Estes, a bug expert with the Illinois Cooperative Agricultural Pest Survey, said that's not surprising.
"We are global economy," she said. "With things moving around the world, we're bound to have things all the time."