Food supply still open to agro-terrorism

The U.S. food supply may still be vulnerable to the deliberate introduction of animal and plant diseases because of management weaknesses in vaccine stockpiling and inspections of products at the nation's ports.

The Agriculture Department needs to examine the costs and benefits of stockpiling more varied vaccines and work with the Homeland Security Department to determine the reasons for declining food inspections, the Government Accountability Office said in a report released yesterday.

'The highly concentrated breeding and rearing practices of our livestock industry make it a vulnerable target for terrorists because diseases could spread rapidly and be very difficult to contain,' said Robert Robinson, managing director for Natural Resources and Environment at GAO.

The Homeland Security, Health and Human Services and Defense departments and the Environmental Protection Agency assist Agriculture in conducting vulnerability assessments of the agriculture infrastructure, creating networks of laboratories to diagnose animal, plant and human diseases and developing a national veterinary stockpile that will include vaccines against foreign animal diseases.

GAO cited problems in the nation's ability to respond effectively to an attack against livestock, including a stockpile of too limited a variety of vaccines and fewer inspections of agricultural products at the nation's ports ' the first line of defense against agro-terrorism ' since DHS assumed responsibility of the inspections. Agriculture also does not use rapid diagnostic tools to test animals at the site of a disease outbreak but only at selected labs.

Agriculture has established the Incident Command System, which the Forest Service and the state of California developed to help fight forest fires and coordinate the communications, personnel and procedures of various agencies and levels of government. It has already been used in two natural animal disease outbreaks in two states.

The National Animal Health Emergency Management System incorporates a nationwide network of state and federal personnel in each state, a National Animal Health Laboratory Network and area emergency coordinators operating within an overall National Response Plan and National Incident Management System, both of which DHS oversees.

About the Author

Mary Mosquera is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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