WHAT CONGRESS IS DOING TO ENSURE SAFETY IN AGRICULTURE
by Gordon Carlson, Doane Washington Correspondent
Congress and the Bush administration are working to get ahead of the curve on agricultural and food terrorism, hoping to get in place a system sufficiently effective to protect farms and food before a terrorist attack strikes the nation and its people at the most basic level.
So far, consumers appear only moderately concerned about the safety of all foods. A November survey by the National Cattlemen's Beef Association found there was no significant difference in consumers' levels of concern for beef, chicken, pork, fish and seafood, milk, fruits and vegetables. On average, 18 percent of respondents said they were extremely concerned about the vulnerability of these foods, while an average of 27 percent said they were not at all concerned.
Those numbers, of course, would change dramatically if a terrorist attack on the food or production agriculture system was successful. The better part of valor, therefore, is to get ahead of any such event and prevent it from happening. And there are indications government is well behind the curve.
In late November, the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture released an analysis that determined federal animal health programs are in such sad shape that it will take hundreds of millions of dollars to bring them to a level of effectiveness.
"Infrastructure inadequacies, especially in terms of staffing and facilities, are now so deep that the (USDA) system cannot appropriately respond to a severe animal health crisis," the NASDA study claimed. Cattle, hog, poultry and other livestock make up an industry worth $100 billion, but the federal government will spend only $70 million in this fiscal year on animal health monitoring programs.
A bioterrorism attack using animal diseases could be "easily introduced" to the nation's pastures and feedlots, usually located along public roads, the report noted. The report called for an extensive upgrading of USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, the major agency responsible for protecting the nation's livestock.
The "lead" bill before Congress that focuses on adding layers of protection to the farm and food supply was introduced in the Senate by Sens. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., and Edward Kennedy, D-Mass. The bill also folded in several proposals advocated by Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan.
In the House, several bills on the subject are pending.
The Frist-Kennedy bill would increase inspections on imported food with $61 million for the Food and Drug Administration to hire 410 new inspectors, laboratory specialists and other experts, as well as investments in new technology and equipment to monitor food imports. It also would allow FDA to use qualified employees from other agencies and departments to help conduct food inspections. FDA now inspects a mere one percent of imported food products.
Any domestic or foreign facility that manufactures or processes food for use in the United States would have to register with FDA. Importers would have to provide at least four hours notice of the food product to be imported, the country of origin and the amount. FDA also would be given authority to prevent "port shopping," a practice in which food shipments denied entry at one U.S. port are diverted to another port.
Measures designed to safeguard agriculture in the Frist-Kennedy bill include grants and incentives to encourage the development of vaccines and antidotes to protect the food supply, livestock and crops and prevent crop and livestock diseases from winding up in fields and feedlots.
Roberts' concerns included in the bill are authorizations for $180 million to update and implement strict security procedures at the Plum Island Animal Disease Laboratory in New York and the National Animal Disease Center in Iowa; $30 million to fund training and implement a rapid response strategy through a consortium of top universities, USDA and agriculture industry groups, and the $190 million to fund grants to universities and researchers to develop vaccines and antidotes.
Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., introduced a bill in the House that would authorize $870 million in research upgrades at USDA facilities where work is conducted on potential threats to the food supply, such as animal and agriculture research labs, and APHIS facilities. The bill also would create a "consortium for countermeasures against agricultural bioterrorism," a coalition of university experts and federal agencies working together to address agricultural bioterrorism threats and procedures.
Another provision of Lucas' bill is the creation of competitive grants for bioterrorism research that would be awarded to researchers focused on the science and technology needed to protect against and deal with acts of bioterrorism on our nation's food supply.
APHIS would be expanded under Lucas' bill, as would USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service. It would increase APHIS' inspection and surveillance capacity at borders and points of entry. It also is designed to help APHIS protect against the introduction of plant or animal diseases by terrorists and help deal with potential outbreaks.
The bill seeks to enhance the FSIS efforts to inspect the domestic meat and poultry supply as well as those products at U.S. ports of entry.
Another House bill was introduced by Rep. Rose DeLauro, D-Conn., that would require any facility handling or processing food for consumption in the United States to register with the FDA. FDA could detain any food "reasonably" believed to be adulterated or misbranded for not more than 20 days pending any action.
The bill also would require each food facility to maintain records and monitor all recalls. The National Institutes of Health would be required to coordinate, expand and intensify food-borne illness programs.
House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Billy Tauzin, R-La., also was expected to introduce a bill to address food security.
PROTECTING THE HOMELAND
In recent testimony before the House Agriculture Committee, USDA Deputy Secretary James R. Moseley outlined several areas he said "must be addressed if we are to be successful in carrying out our homeland security responsibilities."
* Protecting U.S. borders: APHIS carries out inspections at U.S. ports of entry to prevent the introduction of foreign plant and animal pests and diseases. FSIS reviews foreign inspection systems and facilities that export meat and poultry products to the United States and reinspects all imported meat, poultry, and egg products to ensure that U.S. requirements are met. Scientific support for these activities is provided by the department's Agricultural Research Service (ARS).
* Educating professionals: Since 9-11, APHIS has conducted an educational teleconference with veterinarian professionals in which diagnostic and foreign animal disease recognition skills were emphasized. Veterinary medical and plant health communities have been put on notice to treat every foreign disease or pest investigation with increased diligence. All APHIS and FSIS field staff has been placed on a heightened state of alert. USDA also has established a protocol with the Federal Aviation Administration for the delivery of investigative samples by military transport to laboratories in the event of another civil aircraft stand down.
* Assuring a safe food supply: USDA has a Food Emergency Rapid Response and Evaluation Team (FERRET), which was authorized by the Agricultural Research, Extension, and Education Reform Act of 1998, and is chaired by the under secretary for food safety. The department also is establishing a "food biosecurity action team" to ensure USDA is safeguarding foods under its jurisdiction. USDA has been meeting on a regular basis with FDA's Food Counter Terrorism Committee and has formed a "food threat preparedness network" linking FDA, the Centers for Disease Control, FSIS and others to focus on preventative activities to protect the food supply.
* Protecting and enhancing research and laboratory facilities: USDA has enhanced the security of its research buildings, laboratories, and pathogen inventories and also established new guidelines for personnel suitability including increased USDA security and additional patrols and surveillance by the Coast Guard of the waters and shipping lanes surrounding the Plum Island, N.Y., facility. USDA is also making sure that all the work the department conducts with sensitive materials are performed in the most secure locations. The office of inspector general has been asked to review the controls and procedures throughout the department's laboratory system to ensure that facilities are secure.
* Protecting other infrastructure: USDA has more than 24,000 buildings at 7,000 sites throughout the world plus responsibility for the National Forest System. The Natural Resources Conservation Service has a variety of responsibilities in rural America, including providing technical assistance to help assess water supply vulnerability. The Rural Utilities Service (RUS) provides funding for electric, telecommunication, and water and waste disposal systems in rural areas. The Forest Service has established additional patrols to improve security on National Forest System lands; RUS is working with its borrowers to improve security where necessary at electric, telecommunications, and water systems financed by the federal government. USDA agencies are upgrading security wherever necessary for all employees; one specific action is an effort to expedite and strengthen the system for security clearances.
* Securing information technology resources: "In many areas, information technology is at the core of USDA activities," Moseley told the committee. "It is used to gather and use crucial information in support of USDA programs. We issue payments to farmers and engage in thousands of other transactions through information technology. We provide the infrastructure that manages the payroll for 500,000 Federal employees, and the Thrift Savings Retirement Plan for all Federal employees. We are vulnerable to security breaches in these areas. Our chief information officer has overall responsibility for the department's Cyber Security Program. We are working to strengthen that program through upgraded security policies and standards, as well as through increased oversight and guidance for USDA agencies. We have asked all of our information technology processing centers to raise their alert level and ensure that system backups are available."