Are you a target for a bioterrorism attack?

While the risk of bioterrorism is low for animal agriculture, we’re still on the radar.

Burt Rutherford, Senior Editor

August 2, 2017

4 Min Read
Are you a target for a bioterrorism attack?

I’m certain you remember where you were when you first heard the terrible news that terrorists had flown commercial jets into the World Trade Center. 9-11 became a national watchword and a patriotic call to action.

Do you remember the 2001 foot and mouth disease (FMD) outbreak in England? I do, vividly. I was on the staff at the Texas Cattle Feeders Association and the outbreak shook us, and all of animal agriculture, to the core.

But do you also remember this? Both events occurred within months of each other. The first FMD case was diagnosed in February, 2001. By August, it became a national disaster and a major media event in England and was declared under control in October.  

I remind you of these events as a follow-up to last week’s blog, where I discussed the gap between answers to a couple of questions from a BEEF survey and the experience that brand inspectors and other law enforcement people see in the field.

Here are the responses in question: To the question of Do you alert law enforcement when you see unusual activity, 90% of BEEF readers responded yes and 10% said no. Likewise, 86% of readers said yes when asked if they write down descriptions of suspicious vehicles, while 14% said no.

The brand inspectors and others attending the annual conference of the International Livestock Identification Association (ILIA) took exception to those figures.

READ: BEEF readers split on animal ID

Now, let’s revisit 2001 again. One reason the FMD outbreak shook U.S. animal agriculture was a comment made by the head person for PETA in the UK, who said she hoped FMD found its way to the U.S. as well.  It became quickly evident that we were a very soft target.

So we worked with feedyards to introduce biosecurity, physical security and employee screening and training into their day-to-day management. They did and they still adhere to those things today, by and large.

But time dims memories and I fear that the threat of bioterrorism, whether from domestic groups like PETA or HSUS, or international groups like ISIS, has faded from view.

RELATED: 8 FMD prevention tips for your ranch

The FBI considers the risk of an international bioterrorism attack on U.S. agriculture to be low. That’s because an attack on agriculture is an attack on our economy and national security. It isn’t sexy, it doesn’t blow things up and kill lots of people.

But the FBI also considers U.S. agriculture to be a prime target for such an attack, simply because we are a soft target. And make no mistake: we are on the terrorist radar. Documents captured in caves and terrorist training camps indicate there are plans for just such an attack.

I’m now going to surprise you and get to the point, which is this:  It doesn’t matter if it’s somebody casing your place to steal tools from your workshop or cattle from your pastures, or a terrorist casing a potential target for a bioterrorism attack.  The threat is there and we need to be aware of it. For bioterrorism,the FBI says areas particularly at risk are operations with large number of cattle that have fenceline contact, like feedyards and dairies, and sale barns and livestock trucking, where cattle are gathered and then dispersed in many directions and over many miles.

So how do we make ourselves a harder target? Biosecurity, physical security and awareness. Do you have a biosecurity procedure for new cattle that come onto your operation? That’s a good way to prevent the spread of any virus or pathogen those cattle might be harboring, regardless of where they picked them up.

Physical security is a little harder. It’s easier for confined animal operations, like feedyards and dairies, and possible for livestock auctions. But it’s a fine line for auctions—buyers need to see the cattle.

Then there’s employee screening and employee training. It’s important to do both. It may keep an animal rights …uuuh…activist with a hidden agenda and a hidden video camera from going to work for you.

But most of all, it’s awareness. Remind yourself and your employees to keep their eyes open and if anything looks out of place or suspicious, note it and, most importantly, report it.   

About the Author(s)

Burt Rutherford

Senior Editor, BEEF Magazine

Burt Rutherford is director of content and senior editor of BEEF. He has nearly 40 years’ experience communicating about the beef industry. A Colorado native and graduate of Colorado State University with a degree in agricultural journalism, he now works from his home base in Colorado. He worked as communications director for the North American Limousin Foundation and editor of the Western Livestock Journal before spending 21 years as communications director for the Texas Cattle Feeders Association. He works to keep BEEF readers informed of trends and production practices to bolster the bottom line.

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