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US Strengthens Defenses Against Agroterrorism - 2001-11-25

Whether they turn out to be the work of terrorist conspirators or isolated crimes, the recent spate of anthrax bacteria contaminations have heightened concerns in the United States that the nation is vulnerable to biological attack. Nowhere is that concern felt more deeply than among the nation's livestock ranchers.

The tens of millions of animals being raised by America's ranchers from cattle and hogs to sheep, goats and poultry support not only the ranchers' family incomes, but a nearly $100 billion per year U.S. livestock industry. That, in turn, supports the even larger trade in meat-based food products. And there is little question - especially in light of the mad cow disease and foot and mouth disease epidemics in Britain - that farm animal diseases can have devastating economic and social effects.

The largest private farm group in the United States, the five million member American Farm Bureau Federation, recently asked the Bush administration to appoint an agricultural specialist to the newly-formed Office of Homeland Security, headed by former Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge. Caroline Anderson, the Farm Bureau's government relations analyst, says the specialist's job would be to help safeguard against agroterrorism.

"This is not a new terminology and this is not a new concern," she said. "Agriculture has long since been concerned about agroterrorism. And we have had heightened security on our farms and ranches in particular all year, as a result of the foot and mouth disease outbreak in Great Britain." Ms. Anderson says that even though the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington have put Americans from all walks of life on high alert, farmers and ranchers face a daily checklist of security measures to keep their farms and the nation's food supply safe from terrorism.

"Make sure that they are in contact with their public health officials and their public officers in the fire departments and police squads," she said. "Make sure they know who is on their property at all times. Make sure they check references of any visitors, and make sure they have secured entrances and exits in and out of their property."

U.S. Department of Agriculture spokesman Kevin Herglotz agrees that farm security is an important concern. But despite the Farm Bureau's appeal, he says, there is already someone at the Cabinet level working with the Homeland Security director to help prevent agroterrorism. That person, says Mr. Herglotz, is the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Ann Venneman.

"We've been very involved here at the USDA since the very beginning, in the wake of this tragedy," said Mr. Herglotz. "Looking at the types of things that we need to do to make sure that we are protecting our food supply - our animals, our plants - against any kind of animal or plant disease. The Secretary has met with Governor Ridge in the Office of Homeland Security. We have been working with the administration to make sure that, from an agriculture standpoint, we have the representation, and that we are looking at the resources that we have, and we are looking at areas where we need to strengthen those resources."

Mr. Herglotz says fears that Britain's foot and mouth disease epidemic might spread to the United States created considerable alarm throughout the U.S. farm and ranch community earlier this year. But the USDA spokesman says the British experience actually provided an important and reassuring test of American preparedness for an epidemic that might affect domestic livestock whatever the source.

"In the spring we began taking some strong measures to build up our programs that we have already had in place, increasing the number of inspectors at our ports of entry, doubling the dog teams at our borders, working to strengthen the communications with our state and local governments, because they really are the first lines of defense for us," said Mr. Herglotz. "And we have also been looking at technologies that are out there for detecting disease, and coordinating various response mechanisms, if we ever did have an emergency."

USDA officials have expressed confidence that the country would be able to cope with an outbreak of infectious disease among U.S. livestock, although problems were noted. These include a shortage of vaccines and the difficulty of early detection. But Mr. Herglotz notes that since the September 11 terrorist attacks, extra security measures have been taken.

" strengthen security at our labs and facilities across the country where we felt it was necessary," he said. "Our inspectors are on a heightened state of awareness at food inspection facilities, as well as our ports of entry, looking for any abnormalities. And we are going to continue to do those types of things. But in addition we are looking at more long-term needs that we may have as it relates to Homeland Security, to make sure that we continue to protect our food and agriculture system and have confidence in those systems."

In the meantime, both houses of the U.S. Congress have also addressed the agroterrorism issue. Since September 11, at least four separate bills have been introduced in the House and Senate that would provide billions of dollars in additional funding for research on detecting and countering biological or chemical attacks on America's food supply. The pending measures would also bolster rural law enforcement and tighten security at all U.S. meat slaughtering and food processing plants.

But Farm Bureau livestock expert Joe Miller says many U.S. ranchers still harbor doubts that local, state, and federal authorities could respond quickly enough in a real animal disease emergency to prevent the start of an epidemic. Mr. Miller says that's why his group is calling on Congress to pass the Animal Health Protection Act.

"The last thing we need in the case of an outbreak is everybody arguing over who does what," he said. "So all we're trying to do is make sure everybody understands that if something happens, that these are the immediate steps that are taken and everybody just falls into line."

Farm Bureau livestock expert Joe Miller is one of many in the U.S. agriculture community who believes in good emergency planning and common sense.