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Food Security Made Alimentary

In late 2002, an outbreak of the highly virulent Exotic Newcastle Disease afflicted chickens in California and other western states. Within a year, three million chickens had been slaughtered to curb the disease. Probably the only reason that the outbreak and subsequent slaughter didn’t cause a public panic is because it received only modest media attention. Still, the incident had an enormous economic impact. Then in late December, the first U.S. case of mad cow disease occurred, garnering considerable media attention and creating significant economic repercussions for the beef industry. The case also revealed shortcomings in such safety processes as the government’s ability to track specific livestock.

Though not caused by agroterrorist attacks, these sorts of weaknesses are indicative of a U.S. agricultural community that has been slow to address the agroterrorism risk, according to RAND’s Dr. Peter Chalk, who testified before the Senate’s Governmental Affairs Committee. The major problems, he pointed out, concern insufficient food security, poor passive-disease reporting, and insufficient veterinarian and diagnostic training.

Among poor food-security practices, Chalk noted, are “uneven standards of internal quality control, questionable biosurveillance, and highly transient, unscreened workforces.” In addition, he testified, many small operations keep scant records, making it difficult to trace a tainted food item.

But Dr. Thomas McGinn of the North Carolina Department of Agriculture expressed hope for a proposed federal food-security program modeled after a similar one in his state. If funded, this program would “assist states and industry in an accurate assessment of the vulnerabilities of each component in the nation’s food chain, by commodity,” McGinn said.

Advances in disease reporting are slow. Part of the problem, noted McGinn, is that officials are dependent on “timely discovery of symptoms by untrained, nonprofessional staff,” which delays detection. “Each day of delay in detection will result in a geometric increase in animal losses and disease eradication costs,” he testified.

McGinn added that hand-held biopathogen detection systems need to be funded. He called for a federal investment in this technology to create a disease “tripwire” system.

The industry also lacks the mechanisms for determining where farm animals are at any given time. Dr. Colleen O’Keefe of the Illinois Department of Agriculture called upon her federal agency counterpart to fund technology for tracking livestock movements and monitoring disease outbreaks. The government has said it will implement a national animal ID system in response to the mad cow incident, among other initiatives.

Some witnesses echoed Chalk’s training concerns but pointed to advances. Dr. Lester M. Crawford, deputy commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, told the committee that the FDA “has hired or retrained scientific experts in biological, chemical, and radiological agent research, detection methodology, and preventive technologies” and has developed a “succession plan” to prevent a brain drain.