U.S. Slow to Respond to Agroterrorism Threat

The threat of terrorism against U.S. agriculture and food production received scant attention prior to 9/11.

The threat of terrorism against U.S. agriculture and food production received scant attention prior to 9/11. When President Clinton issued a 1998 directive naming nine physical and cyberbased systems critical to the nation, agriculture and food production were not among them.

In the weeks following 9/11, President Bush added the agriculture and food industries to that list of critical infrastructure as part of his order establishing the Department of Homeland Security. (Bush later issued a directive to make it a national policy to defend food and agriculture against terrorism and other emergencies.)

In 2002 Congress also passed the Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act (known as the Bioterrorism Act). Title III of that act required the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to issue security regulations for the food supply.

These moves came as evidence was being uncovered of al-Qaida efforts targeting the U.S. food supply. At one 2003 Senate committee hearing, it was noted that the CIA had confirmed that the 9/11 hijackers were interested in flying crop-dusting planes (which could be used to disperse hazardous agents on farmlands) and that investigators in Afghanistan had recovered hundreds of documents about U.S. agriculture from al-Qaida caves there.

While agriculture is now firmly on the homeland security agenda, experts watching the nation's progress on food security see delays in implementing new regulations and steep challenges to coordinate efforts by many federal agencies.

The regulations that have been issued by the FDA in compliance with the Bioterrorism Act require domestic and foreign food facilities to register with the the FDA; the creation and maintenance of records so that food can be tracked one-up and one-down (meaning the previous source and the next recipient); advance notice of imported food shipments; and the detention of food if it's determined that it poses imminent risk of injury or death to animals or humans.

The act has good intentions, but the FDA has postponed its enforcement date numerous times and still has yet to set one. "It's a toothless tiger," says Roger Viadero, a former FBI agent and inspector general in the USDA and now managing director for agribusiness at Navigant Consulting.

Another factor that makes government regulations difficult is the number of agencies involved in agriculture and food oversight. Though it's hard to pin down an exact number, Rod Wheeler, former director of food security programs at the National Food Products Association, says the industry group has identified 79 agencies that have something to do with food security inspections, including the USDA (and its Animal Plant Health Inspection Service), FDA, DHS, HHS and DoD.

"We're terribly inefficient in how we approach food safety," says Jerry Gillespie, director of the Western Institute "for Food Safety and Security at the University of California, Davis. "Different agencies have different legislative authority."

It's also unclear who would be in charge if there were a terrorist incident, says Gillespie, given the number of agencies that could be involved on the local, state and national levels.

"I think we need to get organized so we know who's in charge. We need some coordination. Whether we can get it, I don't know, but we need it at the top level. If something happens on the ground, expending energy on who gets to call the shots is not effective," he says.

Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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