Preventing a terrorist attack or accidental outbreak of a foreign animal disease (FAD) should be among the priorities of the livestock industry working in concert with local law enforcement. That's the advice George Teagarden, Kansas Livestock Commissioner, outlines in emergency response procedures to deal with an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) in Kansas.

With heightened concern about the vulnerability of agricultural targets to terrorists using biological agents, Teagarden and George Kennedy, Kansas State Veterinarian, suggest some steps livestock producers and feedlot operators might take when getting serious about the threat from outbreaks of FADs. Kennedy was one of the veterinarians sent to the United Kingdom in 2001 to help contain the FMD outbreak there.

“Biological threats to agriculture represent a new challenge for law enforcement, and it's important we understand the possible threats, vulnerabilities, available resources and likely scenarios,” says Terry Knowles, deputy director of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation.

“The key for law enforcement is to better understand the complexity of the agriculture industry, and develop new partnerships to help prevent any bioterrorism attack,” Knowles says. “Responding after the fact will be costly and difficult.”

Veterinarians' key role

Reaction to an agroterrorism event involving animals depends on the rapidity with which the disease is discovered, says Bill Kvasnicka, retired Extension veterinarian, University of Nevada-Reno. He says if animal or plant diseases do get into the country, the first people likely to see their effects are producers and veterinarians.

“There are more than 350 veterinarians across the U.S. trained as FAD diagnosticians,” Kvasnicka says, “not including the thousands of veterinarians in private practice and in state and federal positions that are also in touch with the livestock and poultry industries.”

At the farm level, perceptive veterinarians will play a crucial role in any effort to combat agricultural agroterrorism, Teagarden adds.

“Local veterinarians are the people who talk to the owners, see the animals and are trained to take samples,” Teagarden says.

But, for veterinarians to help slow or contain a disease outbreak, they must know what they're dealing with.

“There's a tremendous problem among U.S. veterinarians now in that many wouldn't recognize some of these diseases,” says Corrie Brown, a University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine professor of pathology. “Less than 1% of all U.S. veterinarians have ever seen an FMD case.”

To improve veterinary education, Georgia and other universities are teaching students about FADs. Along with Iowa State University and the University of California-Davis, members of Georgia's veterinary faculty are developing a distance-education course on FADs in collaboration with Texas A&M University (TAMU).

Collaborate & counter

The response to a biological incident in agriculture will likely also involve several government agencies. USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) is the lead agency in protecting agriculture through the surveillance of animals for FADs, operation of quarantine stations, and the implementation of response plans should a foreign agent be found.

APHIS has a Regional Emergency Animal Disease Eradication Organization ready to travel to implement control and eradication measures.

“The threat to agriculture and the public health is real, and we must get serious about addressing the issue,” Kvasnicka adds.

In developing plans to prevent acts of agroterrorism, Knowles says the following countermeasures are recommended:

  • Intelligence

    Develop an information-sharing system between law enforcement and producers/veterinarians concerning suspects and suspicious activity.

  • Biosecurity

    As the first line of defense, local livestock producers and veterinarians need to develop a biosecurity plan. Everyone must be aware of the risks and symptoms associated with infectious diseases.

  • Rapid diagnostic capabilities

    On-site diagnosis must be conducted, with confirmatory tests done at the USDA Laboratory in Plum Island, NY.

  • Rapid incident response

    Local, state and federal agencies must quickly respond to contain and eradicate any outbreak of an FAD.

  • Training

    All members of the livestock industry must be provided with a continuing form of training and timely updates concerning possible biological threats.

Some scientists are helping with baseline research into ways to stop transmission of pathogens and to monitor animals' health. For instance, Sandra Amass, an assistant professor of production medicine at Purdue University's School of Veterinary Medicine, recently discovered that a standard procedure for preventing the spread of dangerous bacteria is worthless.

“Most producers walk through ‘boot baths’ containing disinfectant,” she says. “But, we found boots contained the same number of bacteria after the procedure as before.”

More effective, she says, is to scrub off the visible manure and dirt, then soak the clean boots in a disinfectant bath.

G. Gale Wagner, a TAMU professor of veterinary pathobiology, has been working on an implantable device that would signal dairy cows carrying E. coli bacteria.

“The cows would walk past a sensor every day,” Wagner says. “We could put signals on there for 50 different diseases.”

Vulnerable target

So, if agroterrorism is easy to do, hard to detect, and effective at undermining economies, why haven't terrorists already perpetrated such an act? Knowles says that question has law enforcement and anti-terrorism experts befuddled.

“We don't have an answer,” he says. “What we do know is agriculture is certainly the soft underbelly with regard to the nation's vulnerability to terrorism.

“Prior to 9/11, no one was thinking terrorists would highjack planes and fly them into buildings and kill innocent people,” Knowles adds. “We must mobilize every segment of our society and ensure we have our most vulnerable bases covered in the best manner possible.”

Take action now

  • Develop a biosecurity plan for your operation as a preventive measure against foreign animal disease.

  • Know and understand the warning signs of exotic diseases, especially foot-and-mouth disease (FMD). Early detection is important.

  • Understand the emergency plans to be implemented by USDA, state animal health departments, and local state and federal law enforcement in event of an FMD outbreak.

Fighting simple with simple

To prevent agroterrorism attacks, law enforcement officials and scientists suggest a few simple, commonsense counter-measures:

Producers

Lock or put tamper-evident seals on buildings and containers that hold products intended for distribution to the herd. This won't prevent tampering, but it will alert you as to whether the products should be distributed to your animals.

Auction barn owners

Prevent as much direct contact as possible between people and animals. Searching visitors isn't enough because many livestock diseases can be effectively transported on clothing or hands and spread by rubbing a contaminated sleeve on a target animal.

Animals could be separated from people by a double fence or other barrier. These measures will also help prevent the accidental spread of disease by visitors from a farm with an undiagnosed outbreak.

Cattle haulers

Vehicles or equipment used to move animals from more than one site or operation should be washed before transporting a new shipment of animals.