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Plant and Animal Quarantining in United States Legal History

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The following is a guest post by Kathryn Gstalder, an intern with the Digital Resources Division of the Law Library of Congress. She is a current graduate student in the Master of Library & Information Science Program at Wayne State University.

The word “quarantine” has broad legal implications. Relating to agriculture, Indigenous peoples, public health, war powers, labor, commerce, and other subject areas, quarantines have been enforced in many ways throughout U.S. history in laws and regulations. An early quarantine law comes from the fourth U.S. Congress, which approved “An Act Relative to Quarantine” in 1796, giving the President the authority to direct revenue towards quarantine efforts in the name of public health.

Black and white photo of the first page of "An Act Relative to Quarantine."
U. S. Laws, Statutes, Etc. Fourth Congress of the United States: at the first session, begun and held at the city of Philadelphia, in the state of Pennsylvania, on Monday, the seventh of December, one thousand seven hundred and ninety-five. An act making further provision. Philadelphia, 1796. PDF.

Quarantine laws extended to other forms of life. After colonization of the North American continent began, non-native seeds and plants were introduced to the country by “immigrants, commercial shippers and traders, government officials, and privately sponsored explorations” (Hyland, 1977, p. 27). The Plant Quarantine Act of 1912 (7 U.S.C. §161) enabled the the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), created in 1862, to regulate the entry of disease- and pest-carrying plants into the country and its territories. Later federal regulations, outlined in 7 C.F.R. 1959, allowed for the construction of plant introduction stations to serve as sites wherein crops that were being brought into the United States from other countries could be inspected and tested for sustainability by plant specialists (Hyland, 1977).


Black and white photograph of the plant quarantine building exterior.

Black and white photograph of the interior of the plant quarantine building.
U.S.D.A. Plant Quarantine Building, 209 River Street, Hoboken, Hudson County, NJ. Constructed in 1940. Historic American Buildings Survey, Creator, Survey number: HABS NJ-1231. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, 

Some plants coming through these stations were determined to be hazardous to the U.S. agriculture industry. Some of these threats were due to insects which are found on these plants. Insects such as the Mediterranean fruit fly and the Mexican fruit fly, found in Mexico and Central America, were identified as threats to crop life.

Such threats have led to restrictions on the commerce and transportation of plants associated with the pests. Some of the crops from Mexico that have been subject to quarantine in attempt to avoid the dissemination of the Mexican fruit fly are peaches, mangoes, and avocado (37 Fed. Reg. 6987). Early regulations on quarantined plants include:

Black and white photograph of plant quarantine inspectors checking packages at the United States/Mexico border.
Plant quarantine inspectors examining packages brought over the bridge between Juarez, Mexico and El Paso, Texas. Families and housewives returning to their homes in El Paso after their Saturday marketing in Juarez, where they benefit by the present rate of exchange. Lange, Dorothea, phootographer, 1937. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, //

Inspection sites have historically been set up along country and state borders to monitor agricultural risks. Within the continental United States, crops in several states were quarantined in order to prevent the spread of fire ants in 1958. Fire ants posed a danger to the healthy growth of corn, potatoes, peanuts, and cabbage. The areas quarantined included eight states (23 Fed. Reg. 2237): Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Texas.

The threat of citrus canker resulted in several citrus species from around the world being prohibited from entering the U.S. In 1947, many countries were restricted from trading citrus with the United States, such as India, Burma, Indo-China, the Philippine Islands, and Japan (12 Fed. Reg. 6346, 1947). Today, various imported plants and seed products remain subject to regulation, inspection, and quarantine.

Animals were similarly quarantined throughout U.S. history. Livestock, horses, birds, and wild animals have all been regulated at one time or another, in response to health concerns. Animals infected with disease, or possibly exposed to disease, have been prohibited from entering the U.S. or crossing interstate lines. The quarantine of cattle was common as a practice for preventing the risks of splenetic, or tick, fever. For instance, in the 1930s, cattle from Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico were prohibited from interstate movement (3 Fed. Reg. 2729; 5 Fed. Reg. 4673, 1938).

Rarer examples of quarantined animals are parrots (4  Fed. Reg. 1763, 1939). In 1948, Congress passed legislation forbidding the importation of “any foreign wild animal or bird.” Some of the other wild animals listed were fruit bats, snakes, and game mammals. Current U.S. law, as described in 7 U.S.C. § 8301 still provides for “the prevention, detection, control, and eradication of diseases and pests of animals are essential to protect” the health of people, the health of animals, commerce and economic interests, and the environment.

References outside of Library of Congress (LOC)

Howard L. Hyland. (1977). History of U.S. Plant Introduction. Environmental Review: ER, 2(4), 26-33. doi:10.2307/3984262

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