Sen. Claire McCaskill William Brandt, undersecretary of the Department of Homeland Security, and Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan
LISTENING: Sen. Claire McCaskill (left), D-Mo.; William Brandt, undersecretary of the Department of Homeland Security, and Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., heard from stakeholders on how to safeguard the U.S. food supply from terrorist attack.

Agroterrorism, food security back in the spotlight

No immediate threat is seen, but being prepared for quick response should the need arise is a high priority.

Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., left a food security roundtable in Kansas City, Mo., on Aug. 17 in agreement that a joint hearing of the Senate homeland security and agriculture committees will be called shortly after Congress resumes its work in early September.

The topic — how best to counter agroterrorism and protect the nation’s food supply from a terrorist attack — springs from suggestions brought up during that event, which was sponsored by the Agricultural Council of Kansas City and featured input from federal, state and local stakeholders most closely tasked with preventing, or responding to, threats to the safety of the food supply or mitigating the damage from an agroterrorist attack or disease outbreak.

The senators emphasized that neither the roundtable nor the call for an immediate hearing on the topic of food safety should be interpreted as an indication that there is an immediate threat to the food supply.

Food supply is safe
“America’s food supply is the safest, the most plentiful and the least-expensive in the world,” Roberts said. “This effort is not about an immediate threat, but rather about preparedness and making sure we have the ability to detect any threat and respond to it, and to plan for how to address any gaps that we find.”

The scope of food security includes natural threats, such as the outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza that disrupted the poultry industry two years ago; swine diseases such as porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome and porcine epidemic diarrhea virus; West Nile virus and Zika virus, as well as diseases that might be weaponized for use in a terror attack.

The senators heard from a number of panelists that the financial support for ongoing educational and preparedness efforts has waned since the first few years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks when more public attention was focused on the threats. As a result, staffing has been reduced and efforts to expand research and education have been thwarted.

Education funding needed
For example, Brandon Depenbush, vice president of cattle operations with Innovative Livestock Services at Great Bend, said the Secure Beef Supply Plan has developed enhanced protocols for training that have made the cattle industry better prepared for a crisis. But, he said, that program does not have guaranteed funding to continue training new workers going forward. Could Congress find a way, he asked, to make the program’s $250,000 annual budget secure?

Jere Dick, associate administrator with USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, told the roundtable that his agency routinely does risk assessments of products that countries wish to export to the United States.

APHIS sends teams to investigate requests for import of live animals, food or food products and works to determine if there are pests that might threaten domestic crops or potential for foreign diseases to be brought into the U.S.

If it is determined that pests could be a problem, APHIS can require food crops to be fumigated before being allowed into the country. However, he said the process breaks down at that point.

Border inspectors needed
“In recent months, we are seeing more and more officers at ports to challenge the credentials of people entering the country and more officers to try to find illegal drugs crossing our borders,” he said. “But we have seen a pullback in personnel to inspect incoming food and make sure that the proper procedures have been carried out before allowing it to enter the country. It’s good to have more border control agents, but we also need more inspection officers.”

Dick said APHIS is planning a more robust educational effort for people working in diagnostic technology jobs in order to speed up the identification of threats and act on knowledge gained in the field when diseases do strike, such as the HPAI-v outbreak.

“We learned that these birds are virus factories,” he said. “If we can rapidly detect an outbreak and depopulate a flock, we can gain control more quickly. However, one issue that needs to be studied is how we dispose of large volumes of dead birds.”

Marty Vanier, senior program manager for strategic partnership development on the National Bio and Agro-defense Facility project, said a partnership between USDA, APHIS and NBAF has coordinated the effort to develop and test vaccines and has licensed a vectored vaccine for foot-and-mouth diseases. The partnership is making progress on a “bank” of vaccines ready to be deployed in a crisis.

Progress made, more needed
Tammy Beckham, dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine at Kansas State University, pointed to the need for more coordination in moving vaccines through the approval process and developing a system for rapid, efficient deployment. She said the biosurveillance program created during the Obama administration needs to be implemented, and progress needs to speed up to build a ready team of research support that can transition readily into NBAF.

Under the Department of Homeland Security the research development budget was between $20 million and $30 million a year. That has been scaled back to $8 million — $4 million each for APHIS and ARS, she said.

Jonathan Green, deputy assistant secretary and director, Human Threats Resilience Division, Office of Health Affairs, Department of Homeland Security, said there is a desperate need for workforce development in food animal science and veterinary medicine.

“We have fewer and fewer people going into education to become food animal vets,” he said.

Agriculture and food animal communications are also workforce needs, Green said.

Awareness effort praised
Roberts and McCaskill praised the work of the KC Agribusiness Council in sponsoring the event and said it really helps legislators when they can hear directly from the on-the-ground stakeholders who are on the front lines of the security of the nation’s food supply.

“Protecting everything from every risk all the time is not possible,” McCaskill said. “But we can certainly do the best we can and prepare for reacting quickly when there is an outbreak of disease or a terrorist threat.”

Roberts said every private partner in the security chain understands the need to have a program in place.

“We can see that the attention has waned over time, and we can commit to a new focus on what is happening and how to respond,” he said.

The senators agreed that developing a blue-ribbon committee on ag security and a joint hearing on the subject by the DHS and ag committees will be an immediate step when Congress resumes work in September.

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