By Lyndon Irwin, Ph.D.
July 2005 -- Bringing together representatives from law enforcement, agriculture and the food processing industries, the International Symposium on Agriterrorism was held in Kansas City on May 3-5. More than 800 attendees representing 43 states and seven foreign countries participated in the conference.
The event was conducted through a collaborative effort of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Heart of America Joint Terrorism Task Force Executive Board.
Many facets of government participated including: U.S. Department of Agriculture?s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service and Food Safety and Inspection Service, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Environmental Protection Agency, Food and Drug Administration, Department of Homeland Security and Customs and Border Protection. In addition, speakers from federal laboratories at Ames, Iowa, and the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, Ga., and Plum Island, Mass., were featured.
The importance of agriculture to the U.S. economy is sometimes overlooked. The symposium highlighted agriculture?s importance in the U.S. economy as it accounts for $1.24 trillion, or 12.3 percent, of the U.S. gross-domestic product and noted that 16.7 percent of all jobs in this country are related to agriculture.
Speakers identified various links in the food chain in an effort to help attendees realize vulnerabilities. Being aware of potential threats and communicating them to the proper agencies is extremely important in the battle against agriterrorism.
Producers, food processors and anyone involved in transportation were urged to report suspicious behavior to law-enforcement officials. Behaviors may include:
James Roth, DVM, professor of veterinary medicine at Iowa State University, pointed out that America is highly vulnerable to agriterrorism attacks. The following characteristics of the agricultural system make it particularly vulnerable:
Among other important vulnerabilities, Roth discussed the lack of level-4 bio-safety laboratories in the United States. A level-4 laboratory offers the highest security for researching animal pathogens that may be transmittable to humans. Currently, researchers work with a Canadian laboratory to study new foreign-animal diseases of interest.
Francis Schmitz, a lawyer with the Department of Justice, made additional remarks about some of agriculture?s vulnerabilities.
?If you clean bathrooms on a jet, you are required to go through a background check. However, if you work on a farm or in a food-processing plant, you don?t,? he remarked.
?Terrorism is real, whether it is domestic or foreign,? commented Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns.
Robert Mueller, head of the FBI, stressed the difficulties in identifying whether a problem is due to terrorism.
?If a car bomb explodes, we know it was intentional. If a cow gets foot-and-mouth disease or if soybeans get rust, was it terrorism or was it natural?? he commented.
Identifying whether an animal health event is intentional or natural determines the extent of the FBI's involvement.
A representative from England provided a first-hand description of what it was like to have to deal with the foot-and-mouth outbreak in that country in 2001. The speaker from Australia reported on his country?s premise ID?s system, which has been in place for 30 years. Within two years, he indicated, all cattle will be identified with orange radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags. He also remarked that the 100 million sheep in Australia are identified by premise group-lot identifications.
The psychological effect of a terrorist scare may be almost as damaging as the real thing, at least from an economic standpoint. To emphasis this point, the Wendy?s chili incident was discussed. Although it was not a terrorist event, it demonstrated consumer reaction to something that caused fear resulting in great economic harm to the company.
Lyndon Irwin, Ph.D., American Sheep Industry Association?s Region IV director and chair of the Research and Education Council, attended the conference.
?This was definitely the best agriterrorism conference I have attended. It certainly helped me better understand our industry?s vulnerabilities. Wherever we might be in the agricultural-food-production chain, we are all going to have to be a bit more vigilant. All of us can help to avoid agriterrorism,? comments Irwin.