There's no need to panic, but there is definitely cause to trade the comfort of indifference for keen awareness.

“To a large extent, the food industry has focused on protecting the food supply from incidental or unintentional problems. Now, we have to deal with the very real possibility of intentional, malicious attacks on the food supply system. That's a different level of protection entirely,” says Chet England. He's senior director of product safety and regulation for fast-food giant Burger King Corp.

Due to that situation, England says, outfits like his “have to expect more from our suppliers. None of us will be able to again conduct business the same way we did before Sept. 11.”

Scott Crain, DVM, from Mead, KS, and a partner in the Cattle Management Health Network, underscores the rural vulnerabilities.

“Because we live in rural areas, beef producers are living in the softest target area we've got,” he says. “It would be relatively easy to dispense biologic elements of mass destruction in these areas.”

Whether introduced intentionally or not, the threat of diseases like foot-and mouth-disease (FMD) has always been there, says Kevin Herglotz, a USDA spokesperson. “That's why we have implemented all the prevention and response programs to keep it out. But, we are asking all producers to be more vigilant.”

While the threat has always been present, producers have been bombarded with the potential of catastrophe the past 18 months.

  • First, public fears about BSE led packers to demand signed affidavits from feedlot suppliers verifying the cattle in their care were not being fed mammalian protein.

  • Next, a widespread global outbreak of FMD prompted USDA to step up inspection and emergency preparedness plans.

  • Then, terrorists attacked the Northeast, and anthrax was delivered through the mail.

  • Now, it's the threat of the intentional introduction of a foreign animal disease (FAD).

9/11 Changed The Threshold

“The vulnerabilities (within the nation) already existed, but we're certainly more aware of them now,” says Mark Mateski, operations manager for Jane's Consulting. “Things we might not have seriously considered before are being considered now, such as the use of biologic weapons for mass destruction.”

Jane's Consulting is a division of Jane's Information Group, which some consider the foremost consultant and publisher for defense, transportation and security issues.

Of course, mass destruction doesn't necessarily imply dying people and exploding buildings. There are two kinds of risk and liability, Crain says. One is anti-human, intended to kill people and create fear. The other is anti-animal or plant, intended to kill livestock or contaminate crops, and undermine consumer confidence in the food supply.

At press time, officials scrambled to track down the origin of anthrax shipped through the mail. According to the Centers for Disease Control, other likely candidates for use as anti-human agents include botulism, plague and smallpox.

These agents obviously can kill people, but Crain notes all biologic agents are highly unpredictable. That's why not everyone gets the flu, and everyone who does come down with it doesn't get sick at the same time.

When it comes to infectious anti-animal and plant agents like FMD — which don't infect people — havoc can be wreaked quickly. In a mock disaster staged by the Texas Animal Health Commission, a hog infected with FMD was marketed at a local sale barn. Because of the way the industry rapidly moves stock cross-country, 30 ranches in four states were infected within 24 hours via cattle unknowingly infected then purchased at the same facility.

“In Great Britain, it wasn't a cow sneezing over the fence that became the wild card,” emphasizes Crain. “It was the trucks hauling them, and the assimilation points at the end of that haul.

“With feedyards, it's not the fact that you have 40,000 head standing in one place that's scary. It's the truck and the assimilation point, the market channel — that's scary,” Crain adds.

With that in mind, Crain encourages feedlot clients to disinfect all vehicles before entry into the yard. A former veterinarian for one of the nation's largest livestock markets, Crain also advises assimilation facilities to allow only known personnel, buyers and consignors in the pens and to admit no one on non-sale and non-sale preparation days.

Figuring The Terrorist Mind

“You have to try to get inside the terrorist's mind and figure out their desired end result,” England says. “Then, take these potential motives and look at our own segments of the business and assess what someone might do to achieve their goals. Then, develop counter-measures.”

In the case of the food supply, England believes terrorist goals could include grabbing public attention with a devastating event that would destabilize consumer confidence in products previously accepted as safe — and/or destabilizing the economy through a hit on a key sector of the supply chain.

For example, Crain says that if terrorists could capture the livestock complex through the introduction of FAD, they also would capture the grain complex because 70% of the grain produced is fed to livestock. Combined, livestock and grain production in this country account for 18% of the gross national product. “Capture these two complexes and you effectively destabilize the nation's economy,” he says.

While there have been no reports of bio-terrorism in livestock thus far, some producers have already felt the threat more than others.

“For so long, we've felt insulated because we're out here in the middle of the country,” says Scott Anderson, manager of Texas County Feed Yard, Guymon, OK — a part of the Brookover organization. “Now, you wonder if that isolation makes you more vulnerable.”

Guymon is a number of miles and coyotes from anywhere, but the sheriff's office called Anderson in October to alert him that a suspicious truck had been crawling along night-darkened roads near his yard. A similar truck had been reported creeping near another county feedlot, as well.

The incident turned out to be a non-event, but Anderson says the phone call got him and his crew thinking of the world differently. Keep in mind, the Brookover yards had already heightened bio-security precautions in the wake of BSE and FMD concerns.

“Immediately, we visited about the security of our facility, made sure all the gates were locked and limited access to only one entry point,” says Anderson. “As an entire organization, we're now in the initial process of discovering what we can do, drafting an overall game plan for each of our yards because each one is unique.”

At the same time, he says, everyone's struggling with how you still can be a good neighbor and heighten security at the same time. It's a delicate balancing act, he adds.

He's not alone in the planning process. Soon after Sept. 11, Crain and his partners began drafting updated biosecurity plans for their clients, which include bioterrorism components.

Of course, the frustration is that for every safeguard you can conjure, you can imagine another hole in need of filling. Mateski emphasizes that no system is 100% secure.

“But doing our best is better than what we have been doing,” he says. For instance, he says airport security might still be vulnerable, but few would argue it hasn't tightened since Sept. 11.

Defending With Offense

Crain says common sense goes a long way in protecting any cattle operation. The fundamentals of disease prevention still work:

  • Soap kills about anything.

  • Know where incoming cattle are coming from and how they've been handled.

  • Prohibit anyone you don't know from coming on to the place.

  • Immediately report any suspicious activity.

  • Immediately report unfamiliar clinical conditions to your veterinarian.

“We've got to be watchful rather than accepting because we don't know the face of our enemy,” says Ian Stewart, a veterinarian and epidemiologist for USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. “Be watchful and stay in tune with what's happening in your area in terms of disease. Stay in touch with the producer groups and the state and federal agencies. Be a good neighbor and watch out for your neighbors.”

Specific beef production biosecurity recommendations can be found at a number of places. Visit www.beef-mag.com for information and links.

England says the industry as a whole has to consider the security of its animals and facilities, whether you're talking about a barn, a feedlot or a transport vehicle.

“We have to make sure we have physical security so that a bad person can't tamper, tinker or compromise the product… And, that includes personnel. How confident is the industry that it has adequate personnel screening and clearance procedures in place?” he asks.

For their part, England says Burger King, which purchases 400-500 million lbs. of ground beef annually, has made security its number-one priority. “We have very capable people at all levels of the industry and government working diligently to solidify and enhance the protection methods we already have in place,” he says.

USDA says much the same. Along with $40 million additional funding received this year to boost FMD protection efforts, it's requested another $45 million to further enhance biosecurity. Herglotz says the money will be used for everything from additional inspectors to increased disease and disease diagnostic research. There are already 5,000 USDA inspectors and veterinarians prowling states and national points of entry, as well as 7,600 food safety inspectors.

Moreover, new necessities spawned by the September attack are growing innovation. For instance, Crain is also chief executive officer of Veriprime, a coordinator and auditor of process verification for consumer-based value attributes. He's currently canvassing the food industry, gauging interest in conducting an industry-wide risk audit to collectively identify the holes that may exist and possible solutions.

As the industry searches for questions, as well as answers, England says, “We all have to realize that we're in this together. If any one segment of the beef supply chain has a problem, we all have a problem.”