The clock is ticking. Paul Williams of the Georgia Emergency Management Agency says that if agriculture is compared to the other critical infrastructures in this country, “it's probably the soft underbelly of preparedness.”

Specifically, he and others involved in designing coordinated emergency response systems to safeguard agriculture cite easy access and the current anemic response capability as gaping chinks in the industry's armor (see July BEEF, page 16).

“An example of hard targets would be the nuclear industry, another of this nation's critical infrastructures,” says Williams. “There you have heavy screening of employees and visitors, movement of people is restricted in and around the facilities, and there are no-fly zones around them. In agriculture, we have none of that.”

Williams' characterization is supported by a recent report from the Gilmore Commission. It's an advisory panel established in 1999 to assess domestic response capability for terrorism involving weapons of mass destruction (including biological agents).

The report says that, “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…”

Williams says each U.S. state has a homeland security agency and at least some training in emergency preparedness. But, he adds, “An increased ability to respond to agro-terrorist attacks will really have to become part of this nation's domestic preparedness policy, and that will take dollars, time and effort. Right now, that isn't happening.”

Well, it is and it isn't.

Legislation Aims to Fill Gaps

On the plus side, the National Animal Health Emergency Management System (NAHEMS) was established in 1997 as a joint state-federal-industry effort to improve the nation's ability to deal successfully with animal health emergencies. With its focus on prevention, preparedness, response and recovery, NAHEMS's national response plan has been adopted by many states.

There also seems to be no end to legislation proposed and enacted since 9-11. In addition to the Homeland Security Act and the Patriot Act, President Bush last June signed into law the Public Health Security and Bio-terrorism Preparedness and Response Act of 2002. Along with designating specific duties to FDA and its agencies, this law expands the activities of USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS).

That expanded authority allows the administrator of APHIS to implement a central automated recordkeeping system. Its purpose is to provide for the reliable tracking of the status of animal and plant shipments, including shipments on hold at ports of entry and customs.

Depending on the interpretation, this at least hints at the need for a standardized national animal identification (ID) system. And such legislation is in the works, according to Washington, D.C., insiders. At the same time, industry and government are working together to develop and submit a recommended program for national standardized animal ID to the U.S. Animal Health Association this fall.

Moreover, Williams explains, “We (the U.S.) have reduced the ability of the global terrorist network to inflict damage.”

As evidence, he points to the fact that from January to May of 2002 there were 300 terrorist attacks worldwide. During the same period this year, there were 100. Plus, say anti-terrorism experts, the fact that the U.S. is shoring up defense of its critical infrastructures is itself an added deterrent to terrorists, even if the defenses aren't yet complete.

Plenty of dollars are flowing toward the U.S. effort against terrorism. Williams says 85% of homeland security federal dollars are earmarked for state and local agencies. The problem is that less than 1% of funds going to states for emergency preparedness are going toward agro-terrorism preparedness.

“That,” he says, “needs to change.”

Speed, Vigilance, Participation

Some gaping security holes remain where agriculture is concerned. For instance, in the event of an agro-terrorist attack, unlike other critical infrastructures, agriculture lacks a secure communications system, which is critical for responding to such attacks.

Williams says such Information Sharing and Analysis Centers (ISACs) aren't subject to the Freedom of Information Act. Thus, people within the infrastructure can discuss, plan and respond without fear of terrorists getting wind of it off the street or via the media.

“Right now, if you report something in agriculture through the current transparent system that exists, just the reporting of it can have economic consequences,” he says. Beef producers learned that lesson in March 2002 when rumor of foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) at a sale barn crashed the futures market, taking the live trade with it.

Incidentally, Williams explains an agricultural ISAC is being established but it's a year from completion, at best.

Similarly, other key recommendations from the Gilmore Commission are in current states of progress. The Commission's recommendations for agriculture include:

  • Legislative enactment of statutory provisions for the certification, under rigid standards of additional laboratories, to test for FMD and other highly dangerous pathogens. (The Gilmore Commission reports there are currently only two civilian labs certified to work with these pathogens.)

  • That the Secretary of Agriculture, in consultation with state and local governments and the private sector, institute a standard system for fair compensation for agriculture and food losses following an agro-terrorism attack; and that the Secretary of Health and Human Services should develop a parallel system for non-meat or poultry food.

  • That the Secretary of Agriculture develop, and Congress fund, programs to improve higher education in veterinary medicine to include focused training on intentional attacks and to provide additional incentives for professional tracks in that discipline.

A Role For Producers

Securing the agriculture and livestock industries against the threat of agro-terrorists is bigger than any individual or individual entity. Producers also have a vital role.

Producers are the first line of defense and first sentinels for the nation when it comes to foreign animal disease.

As such, Williams suggests producers be on the lookout for anything unusual, both in terms of people and livestock. Are there people hanging around who shouldn't be there? Are new employees, delivery people and the like acting strangely? Do you have a system in place to monitor and document visitors to your operation? If anything is amiss, Williams encourages producers to immediately call local law enforcement.

When it comes to livestock, producers should report any behavior or symptoms that are out of the ordinary to their veterinarians immediately.

“We need the expertise of everyone involved in agriculture. This isn't just a federal strategy, it must be a national one,” says Jim Moseley, U.S. deputy secretary of agriculture.

Moseley says the “first call to action at USDA has been and will be to call attention to the threat (of agro-terrorism) without creating anxiety in the minds of the public.

“We in agriculture can't allow the public to believe that the industry can no longer supply them with a safe product,” he says.

Building the needed protection requires the policies, systems and coordination of government and private industry, but Williams emphasizes that, overall, 85% of the critical infrastructure in this nation is owned by private industry.

“In agriculture, private industry ownership is probably more like 95 percent, so private industry participation will be vital in our war on terrorism,” he says.

In fact, Williams believes private industry should be the one applying the heat.

“There needs to be a call from industry and individual producers to the Secretary of Agriculture, to the Homeland Security Director and Congress, insisting that funding be made available so these things can get accomplished,” he says. “Industry will play a major role in making this happen.”