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A Soft Underbelly

Accessibility and a weak response capability make livestock and agriculture the soft underbelly of Homeland Security.

“Terrorism brings us all to the front line,” says Jim Moseley, U.S. deputy secretary of agriculture. “This is truly a different kind of war. The idea that someone would use our food as a weapon against us is not new in the world, but it is to the U.S.”

In fact, when you ponder the relative ease with which a terrorist could intentionally introduce a foreign animal disease (FAD) into the U.S. livestock industry, the fact it hasn't happened is more surprising than not.

“Unfortunately, animal agriculture is one of the probable threats for an economic attack on this country,” Moseley told participants at this year's National Institute for Animal Agriculture Meeting, which focused on animal emergency preparedness. “The threat to agriculture is real. We can no longer have a vague sense of agricultural terrorism. And, the time to prepare for it is before it happens, rather than when it does.”

What makes U.S. agriculture such a tempting target for bio-terrorism is that the industry employs one of every eight people in the U.S. An attack on the food supply would not only disrupt that economic infrastructure but severely disrupt consumer confidence.

The Gilmore Commission — an advisory panel established in 1999 to assess domestic response capability to terrorism — concurs.

“The downstream effect of a major act of terrorism against this highly valuable industry would likely be enormous, impacting all of these sectors [agriculture and the allied industries that depend on it], and ultimately on the American consumers themselves,” says the report.

It goes on to say that: “In addition, there is likely to be a major psychological impact on the producers, responders and the public more generally, and the psychological consequences of an act of agricultural terrorism are not well understood.”

U.S. producers got their first taste of the potential ramifications in March last year. That's when rumors about foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) in cattle at a Kansas sale barn capsized an already anemic cattle market.

More recently, Canada provided a case in point when bovine spongiform encephalopathy was discovered in a 6-year-old cow in Canada (see page 10). At press time, that single case was costing the Canadian beef industry almost $20 million/day. And, U.S. and other major Canadian export customers still had their borders closed to Canadian live cattle and beef products.

it's an Old Idea

Of course, the possibility of the accidental or intentional introduction of an FAD is nothing new.

“Agro-terrorism has been around since bows and arrows were considered to be high technology,” says Paul Williams of the Georgia Emergency Management Agency. Williams also serves with the National Animal Health Emergency Management System, a joint state-federal-industry effort to improve the U.S. ability to deal successfully with animal health emergencies.

For perspective, the Gilmore Commission points out, “Since 1912 there have been 12 documented cases [globally] involving the sub-state use of pathogenic agents to infect livestock or contaminate a related produce.” The most recent was the intentional use of salmonella in the 1980s to poison Oregon voters prior to a local election. It was several years before authorities discovered the food poisoning was intentional and not accidental.

In other words, terrorists are attracted to bio-terrorism because it is easy to introduce and difficult to track.

More frightening, Williams explains, “Terrorists have discussed and even perfected the application of agro-terrorism as long as 10 years ago.”

Williams says examples include the Soviets' step-by-step plan uncovered after the Cold War explaining how they could use avian influenza to cripple enemy economies.

When the U.S. invaded Afghanistan, more than 200 U.S. documents were found that had been translated into Arabic, each describing in detail the U.S. planned response capability to the introduction of a foreign animal disease to the livestock industry. Williams says documentation also verifies that al Qaeda has been talking about using agro-terrorism since 1985.

Besides the obvious vastness and openness of U.S. agriculture, the Gilmore Commission says the industry's vulnerability stems from six main factors:

  • The concentrated and intensive nature of contemporary U.S. farming practices.

  • The increased disease susceptibility of livestock.

  • A general lack of farm/food-related security and surveillance.

  • An inefficient, passive disease-reporting system further hampered by a lack of trust between regulators and producers.

  • Veterinarian training that tends not to emphasize foreign animal diseases or large-scale husbandry.

  • A prevailing focus on aggregate, rather than individual, animal statistics.

“When you talk about vulnerability, you have to look at it in terms of risk assessment,” Williams says. “First, is there a credible threat?”

The fact that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has identified agriculture as one of a handful of critical infrastructures that must be protected in this country verifies that reality.

Consider Response Capability

Next, Williams says, “You have to look at risk assessment in terms of response capability. If you look at Exotic Newcastle Disease [a virulent poultry disease that has so far forced depopulation in parts of four U.S. states], our national emergency response capability is pretty well strapped with what would be considered to be a minimal foreign animal disease incursion.”

While Exotic Newcastle Disease has inflicted plenty of emotional and economic pain on those affected, the response necessary to control it pales in comparison to estimates for a broad, multi-species incursion by an FAD.

“If we ever were to have an attack on our beef industry, as an example, with something like FMD, it's estimated we would likely have 20-30 states involved in the first week, and that such an attack would require 25,000-30,000 first responders [people trained and coordinated specifically to respond to animal emergencies]. Today, I'm not sure we could respond very well,” Williams says.

For comparison, the outbreak of Exotic Newcastle Disease that has strapped the current emergency response system has required fewer than 3,000 first responders.

In sum, Williams says, “We are incredibly vulnerable from the standpoint that our nation's response capability is limited at best.”

Even though vulnerability is high, agriculture continues to be the critical infrastructure receiving the least attention. According to the most recent Gilmore Commission Report, “In terms of accurate threat assessments and consequence management procedures, the agricultural sector continues to exist as an exception to the wide-ranging emphasis that has been given to infrastructure protection in this country.”

At least in part, the report points out this situation has occurred because the previous administration ignored agriculture as a critical infrastructure.

Moreover, although the National Animal Health Emergency Management System has a standardized animal health emergency response plan that states can adopt or use as a template to customize their own systems, fewer than half had such plans in place last year.

“If you compare agriculture to other critical infrastructures in this country [such as transportation, nuclear power and communications], agriculture is probably the soft underbelly of preparedness,” explains Williams.

That said, the state and federal governments are taking steps to increase animal health emergency preparedness, albeit slowly. And, there are ways for beef producers to prepare themselves individually and collectively. Next month, we'll look at how individual producer participation can help decrease the risk of agro-terrorism and boost the industry's preparedness and response capability.