After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Congress launched a series of investigations to find flaws in the system that is supposed to protect America from terrorism. Those investigations found many loopholes, including large gaps in intelligence gathering and airline security.

But as congressional investigators looked deeper, they found widespread faults in the system that's supposed to protect agriculture from bio-terrorism attacks. This includes acts such as the deliberate introduction of foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) into herds.

Between 2002 and early 2004, Congress completed six investigations focused on the bio-terror threat to agriculture. These were conducted by the General Accounting Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress. Here's some of what was found:

  • The Plum Island Animal Disease Center in New York, which works with FMD and other livestock diseases, suffered from widespread security lapses. Alarms and sensors in the bio-containment area, where disease samples are stored, weren't fully operational. And, outdoor lighting was insufficient to allow security cameras to work.

    Foreign scientists were allowed into the bio-containment area unescorted and with incomplete background checks. Meanwhile, no background checks were done on students taking classes in the bio-containment area, and cleaning crews were allowed into the bio-containment area without escorts.

    Finally, the GAO found security guards were unarmed and lacked arrest powers.

    “Controlling access to pathogens is critical because a tiny quantity could be removed (from Plum Island) without being detected and turned into a weapon,” the GAO report said.

  • National border checkpoints were ill-equipped and unprepared to monitor for pathogens that could be deliberately or accidentally introduced into the U.S. For instance, border inspectors were not given quick guidance on how to screen cargo and passengers for FMD after the 2001 outbreak in Europe.

Investigators also found discrepancies in the accuracy of documents provided to border inspectors by beef and cattle-feed importers. Such discrepancies occurred more than 20% of the time, posing the risk of BSE-contaminated meat or feed moving into the country. In addition, GAO found border inspection was understaffed to handle a growing volume of imports. (They have added manpower in the last year.)

The system to prevent sabotage of the food supply also was found lacking. GAO found USDA and the Food and Drug Administration lacked authority to require food processors to install alarms or security fences in order to prevent contamination of processed food. And, field personnel at both agencies lacked bio-terrorism training.

GAO also said the system to recall tainted food is flawed. An Ohio State University study recently found that meat and poultry processors recovered only about half of the meat and poultry involved in recalls from 1998 to 2002.

Overall, the reports suggest the system leaves the U.S. vulnerable to potentially devastating attacks on agriculture, and the flaws may not be easy to fix.

“It took many decades to get the system to where it is today,” says Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. “One of the unfortunate perceptions today is that we can fix it overnight, but this isn't going to be an overnight fix. We also have to ask whether we are moving on the critical target areas (to improve bio-security). I think we are.”

One area in which real progress seems to have been made is the use of computers to help prevent terrorism and to react quickly should it occur. Congressional investigators reported last year that USDA already had 10 such programs underway. Among these is a computerized emergency response system to manage disease outbreaks.

Quick response is a critical element in the defense plan because many experts believe the U.S. is vulnerable to bio-terror attacks on agriculture even if the preventive systems are greatly improved.

“That not to say that we shouldn't try to prevent an attack,” says Marty Vanier, assistant director of the National Agricultural Biosecurity Center at Kansas State University. “But, prevention isn't a silver bullet. We can prevent forest fires, but we still have them every summer.”

Since bio-terrorists will try to inflict maximum economic damage, a quick response could save billions of dollars and thousands of jobs. With one in every five jobs in the U.S. based on agriculture, it's not only producers who are jeopardized by a slow response. It would affect related businesses like retailers, restaurants, packers and processors, feed stores, equipment makers, grain farmers, veterinarians and agricultural lenders.

Vanier says the U.S. could develop unmanned biological sensors as one method to provide a quick warning of bio-terror acts.

Corrie Brown, former head of Plum Island's pathology section, agrees speed of detection is critical.

“We can have the most sophisticated response system in the world, and perhaps we do, but it isn't activated until we recognize that first case,” says Brown, who's now an animal infectious disease specialist at the University of Georgia.

“The amount of economic damage we would suffer as a result of a foreign animal disease is directly proportional to the amount of time it takes to make a diagnosis,” she says.

Doug McInnis is a Casper, WY, writer specializing in business management topics.

Where We're Vulnerable

There are many ways terrorism could damage the beef industry. Beef demand could be decimated by reducing consumer confidence in the safety of U.S. beef. Such a move would not only terrorize citizens, but impact beef's foreign markets, severely impacting the U.S. economy. The cattle sector, after all, is the largest sector of agriculture, which is the largest business sector of the U.S. economy.

Besides tampering with animal health or finished products, terrorists could try to raise the cost of producing cattle by spreading plant diseases in areas that grow corn or other feed grains. This would produce feed shortages and raise the price of feed inputs.

Forcing up energy prices would also impact the industry. This has already begun to happen as oil prices have surged. Instability in the Middle East, terrorist strikes against oil-rich Saudi Arabia, and attacks by insurgents on Iraqi oil facilities and pipelines have contributed to rising oil prices, which are impacting producers' bottom lines.

Rift Valley Fever Is Spreading From Africa

Animal disease specialists say the U.S. may be vulnerable to an African virus that kills both cattle and humans. The disease Rift Valley Fever (RVF) hadn't been found outside of Africa until it spread to the Middle East in 2000.

Like West Nile Virus, RVF is spread by mosquitoes. It can be transmitted from cattle to people and vice versa. The virus kills up to 10% of people infected.

If it hits here, “it would make West Nile look like a hiccup,” says Corrie Brown, an animal infectious disease specialist at the University of Georgia. Brown formerly headed the pathology section of the Plum Island Animal Disease Center in New York.

“We're really quite vulnerable to Rift Valley Fever,” she says. “The threat has been underlined because of terrorism. But we're also at great risk from an accidental introduction because of globalization.”

Brown says she worries that someone incubating the virus will come to the U.S. during mosquito season. An infected traveler could spread the disease to other people, to cattle or both, she says. Should RVF hit the U.S., it would shut down U.S. beef exports.

To fight the disease, executing immediate control measures would be vital, but producers and most veterinarians don't know how to spot the disease. The most visible warning signs are stillborn calves or calf death soon after birth. Lab tests are needed to confirm the disease. Brown urges ranchers or vets to immediately send tissue samples of dead calves for testing.