Agriculture's homeland security role still in seedling stage, observers say

America is said to have the world's safest food supply, but it didn't seem so at the end of December. In Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Georgia, and North Carolina, a thousand people fell ill--and three died--just from eating green onions. In Washington state, when a single cow--already butchered and shipped out to restaurants and grocery stores--was diagnosed with mad-cow disease, roughly 30 nations responded with import bans or other sanctions. If bad luck could wreak such havoc on the food industry and consumers, how much damage could purposeful malice inflict?

A lot, according to Peter Chalk, the author of a forthcoming Rand report, "Hitting America's Soft Underbelly: The Potential Threat of Deliberate Biological Attacks Against the U.S. Agricultural and Food Industry." Chalk said, "The American farming community and food sector remain highly Qaeda has said that it considers America's economic interests to be its Achilles's heel, and [Osama] bin Laden has said that biological agents should be used in whatever capacity against Western interests."

Agriculture is a $1 trillion-per-year industry, responsible for about one-sixth of the American gross national product. But despite its economic heft, the industry is a latecomer to the homeland-security game. It wasn't included among the country's high-priority infrastructure systems until after Sept. 11, and basic security preparations such as emergency plans, drills, maps, and clear lines of communication still vary enormously from state to state.

Mad-cow isn't contagious, but plenty of other diseases are. If terrorists were to unleash foot-and-mouth disease on the country's livestock, for example, which they could easily do, they could inflict $30 billion in damages. In the United Kingdom, the accidental outbreak of the disease in 2001 cost more than $10 billion, and the livestock sector there still hasn't recovered.

"From the standpoint of homeland security, we haven't got a strategy," Chalk said. "There are ad hoc initiatives, but they're not integrated, and they're more stopgaps than concerted efforts."

Washington state, where a stumbling cow was belatedly discovered to have carried bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad-cow disease, is a case in point. In the state's agriculture department, James Wood said the department's full-time emergency staff consists of "me." "There are times when I feel stretched," he said, adding that the department has requested funding for two additional people to work on homeland security and food safety.

At the other extreme is North Carolina's agriculture department, which has more than 25 people dedicated to emergency programs. The impetus for the Tarheel State's extensive program wasn't terrorism, but hurricanes. With a $49 billion agricultural sector and vulnerable oceanfront position, North Carolina is home to more supercostly weather disasters than any other state in the country. As a result, by the mid-1990s, it had mapped out the location of every farm inside its borders, something that other states are just starting to do. In 1999, after Hurricane Floyd devastated the state, North Carolina transferred Tom McGinn, its chief veterinarian, into a newly created post: director of emergency programs.

McGinn immediately began working with the state's emergency management, law enforcement, public health, and forest service officials on developing a coordinated response to agricultural emergencies. Cooperation, he said, came easily, thanks to a bit of creativity on his part: He showed the other departments a video clip of an animal disease outbreak in another country. "I told them this was a $10 billion disaster, and that the biggest thing we'd seen in our state, at that time, was a $6 billion hurricane," he said, and the light "immediately came on."

The state, under McGinn's leadership, undertook an ambitious program of creating county-level animal response teams, which counties and states across the country have since copied. The teams include animal-control officers, universities, the sheriff's office, veterinarians, forestry officers, animal producers, and private citizens, all of whom can be mobilized in an emergency. "We got the whole idea from the volunteer fire department," McGinn said. "The community can't afford a full-time emergency team, so we have a volunteer one instead."

But how would all of the state's preparations hold up under a terrorist attack? That, McGinn said, depends on the preparations of other states. American livestock is tremendously mobile: North Carolina alone moves a million animals a week, which easily allows a contagious disease to spread quickly. A breakdown at any point in the livestock/food distribution/first-responder network would mean huge problems. If one producer doesn't quickly call a vet, if one vet doesn't recognize slobbering as a sign of foot-and-mouth disease, if one county fails to lock down the area around contaminated farms, or if one state fails to guard its borders, then a virus could quickly spiral out of control.

In cooperation with the National Defense University, McGinn ran a simulation on the impact of having terrorists deliberately introduce foot-and-mouth disease into five states around the country. The disease was not detected until the fifth day, at which point it was already in 23 states. By day 30, the disease had spread through 40 states and would have required some 700,000 personnel to contain.

Preparing for a terrorist attack, McGinn said, is akin to preparing for a computer virus. "Hardening one computer, or farm, won't do it," he said. "There's an entire system that has to be hardened, and there have got to be resources from the states and at the national level addressed to that hardening." The Department of Homeland Security has asked each state to identify its top 10 agricultural targets, McGinn added, but "the biggest target is the network itself."

USDA has taken some recent steps to help strengthen the agricultural and food emergency-response network at the national level. The department is spending millions on agricultural security, including $43 million to help states rapidly detect, diagnose, and respond to outbreaks. Together with the Homeland Security Department, USDA will be delivering a joint strategy on foreign animal diseases to Congress this month. And some of the steps taken in the wake of the mad-cow discovery--such as a formal commitment to implementing a system of animal tracking--are crucial to containing an outbreak of any animal-borne disease.

If the news is mixed on the animal front, it's even more so for vegetables and fruits. Most food-borne illnesses are also carried by produce, which falls under the jurisdiction of the Food and Drug Administration. Last fall's 1,000 cases of hepatitis A illuminated some stark vulnerabilities there.

The first three outbreaks occurred in late September and early October, but almost a month passed before the green onions were identified as the problem. Furthermore, the first public advisory wasn't issued until November 16, during the fourth, and largest, outbreak.

The FDA says it didn't know that it was in the middle of an ongoing crisis until people in Pennsylvania started to get sick. "By the time we implicated the onions, there were no more in the marketplace, so we didn't think we had a continuing" public health hazard, according to an FDA spokesman.

But the biggest contrast between USDA and the FDA is in the time it took each agency to trace the culprits. USDA took a couple of days to figure out that the mad-cow came from Canada; after fingering the onions, though, the FDA needed another month to trace them back to their Mexican roots.

"I'm not a big supporter of USDA, but they have a much tougher law and much greater resources to apply to addressing a problem," said Carol Tucker Foreman, director of the food policy institute at the Consumer Federation of America. The "FDA doesn't have the resources and, in the case of imported foods, doesn't have the legal authority to do the job."

While USDA inspects all the butchered meat in the country, the FDA, which oversees some 75 percent of America's food, inspects less than 2 percent of all food imports--and even that's an improvement from a year ago, when it inspected less than 1 percent.

Furthermore, according to some experts, the inspections on incoming shipments are so cursory that their effectiveness is questionable. "They're just looking for gross contamination, like opening a container that says green onions and making sure there are no dead raccoons," said Rocco Casagrande, director of homeland security for Abt Associates, a research and consulting group based in Massachusetts.

What could terrorists learn from the contaminated green onions? They could see that the majority of healthy adults would survive most food-borne attacks. That's the good news for Americans. The bad news is that the terrorists would realize that vegetables are a pretty good method of making a lot of people sick -- and killing a few -- with anything from salmonella or E. coli poisoning to botulism. "You're not cooking it. You sometimes don't even wash it very well," Casagrande said of imported produce. So all a terrorist has to do is "ensure that [the germ] will survive in dirty, watery food."

Under the Bioterrorism Act of 2002, the FDA got some new abilities to track and respond faster to contamination. For the first time, most of the food industry has to register with the FDA, and food importers have to give inspectors advance notice of incoming shipments. More importantly, as of December 2003, the industry became responsible for keeping records of where food comes from and where it is going. These are the type of records that could have helped trace the contaminated onions much faster.

Despite the recent advances, though, Chalk said that the country's agriculture and food sectors are still far too vulnerable. "I started researching this area back in 1999, and in terms of concrete developments, virtually nothing has changed, 9/11 or the U.K. foot-and-mouth outbreak notwithstanding," he said. Even without a terrorist attack, he speculated, it's only a matter of time before a new imported disease breaks out in the U.S., and then "we'll be scrambling to catch up."