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U.S. Customs checks roses for bugs, disease before Valentine’s Day

February 12, 2019

There’s a chance the roses you receive on Valentine’s Day have already been held by someone else.

It’s not a regift.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection inspects thousands of flowers each week, making sure that the shipments from foreign countries don’t carry over any invasive bugs or diseases to the American agriculture market.

Feb. 14 is a busy time for Customs at George Bush Intercontinental Airport, with the number of roses double or triple what the office usually receives, said Gisel Medina Bobe, a Customs and Border Protection agriculture specialist.

“We have to be very careful,” Medina Bobe said on Tuesday, inspecting a bouquet of red roses for insects. “I call them undercover passengers.”

Medina Bobe was searching a box of flowers from Colombia, which ultimately didn’t have any pests or disease. By hand, she sifted through three bouquets of red roses and one bouquet of ivory.

She first held a bunch by the stems, shaking them upside down. Any insects that might be hidden between the roses would have fallen, where Medina Bobe could separate them and send them to an etymologist for identification, she said.

Anything not native to the area could be flagged by the etymologist - such a larva from a foreign type of moth - and then the roses would be fumigated or destroyed. Medina Bobe also checked the stems and leaves for any spots that would indicate disease.

“We’re trying to keep them away from our landscape,” Medina Bobe said. “Something that we introduce to our country that we don’t have here could be a devastation for the industry.”

During a regular time of year, the office might receive two or three shipments of 3,000 stems from top importers - or 250 dozens of flowers, she said. Before Valentine’s Day, that number could triple, meaning workers have to pull overtime hours to make sure the flowers can be cleared to release to flower shops and grocery stores.

The pink roses are Medina Bobe’s favorite, but they’re all gorgeous, she said. She pulled out a bouquet of ivory roses to inspect, filling the air with a sweet scent.

“They’re so beautiful,” she said.

samantha.ketterer@chron.com

Twitter.com/sam_kett

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