Farm Security: Vulnerabilities in the Food Chain

Farms and ranches are rural, open-air and often located on big land tracts, making protection difficult.

  1. Farms and ranches are rural, open-air and often located on big land tracts, making protection difficult. Some ranches train staff to watch for suspicious activity and yet, "Millions of cattle are raised with little or no security," says Jerry Jaax, a former Army biodefense and biological arms control specialist, who is associate vice provost for research compliance and university veterinarian at Kansas State University.
  2. Cattle feedlots are typical of the highly concentrated nature of the agricultural sector. Although surveillance cameras may be in use, several risks in this setup could ease the spread of contamination. First, thousands of cattle are fed in close proximity, and animals, grain and processed food products are often commingled in the food production system. Second, scientific advances in farming, such as the use of antibiotics and hormones, have made livestock increasingly susceptible to disease or drug-resistant infections. Third, many countries have endemic diseases that are harmful to animals but that don't hurt people, which makes these contagious biological agents relatively easy for terrorists to acquire and transport. And fourth, vaccines are not a safeguard against an outbreak. For one thing, agricultural practice calls for slaughtering animals to prevent disease spread. And for diseases such as African swine fever, there is no vaccine. And although the United States has a limited supply of vaccines for some strains of foot-and-mouth disease (FMD), they are not stored in a ready-to-use state for quick application.
  3. Inspectors and experts are in short supply, and coordination among them is lacking. There's a shortage of veterinarians trained in foreign animal diseases, such as FMD and African swine fever. There is also a shortage of agricultural inspectors. One reason, according to a recent Government Accountability Office report, is that 1,517 inspectors were transferred from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to the Department of Homeland Security in 2003. The report cites a decline in agricultural inspections at ports of entry from 40.9 million in FY02 to 37.5 million in FY04, partly due to the inspector shortage. Also, DHS agricultural inspectors are sometimes assigned to other duties, such as helping to clear passengers through immigration in airports. Furthermore, although the federal government has been working to improve emergency response systems, coordination among those required to respond to an agroterrorist attackfarmers, local law enforcement, and state and federal agenciesis still lacking.
  4. Security experts are concerned that farmers could be reluctant to report a contagious disease, for fear of possible consequences. They could have to kill livestock, for which they might not receive government compensation. Also, farmers could fear that the presence of government officials on their farms would arouse suspicion and tarnish their reputation, regardless of whether their cattle actually have a disease.
  5. Auction barns, where fattened cattle are sold, are not set up to prevent potential attacks. Typically there are no security guards or ID checks at cattle sales. "If you're going to buy cattle, you have the right to go look at them, to put your hands on them. Within hours those animals would be going in 50 different directions," says Jaax.
  6. There's little or no consistency in the security practices used in transporting animals. The trucking industry in recent years has implemented security measures such as GPS location systems and tamper-evident seals with verification numbers on the trucks. "If a seal number has been changed, customers will reject it," says Mark Cheviron, corporate vice president and director of security and services at Archer Daniels Midland. However, trailers parked in a freight yard are often left unsealed or unlocked at night, says Roger Viadero, managing director for agribusiness at Navigant Consulting and a former FBI agent and inspector general in the USDA.
  7. Food processing plants, which have spent years developing practices to prevent contamination, represent a relative strength in the system. "By and large the processing plants are far more secure than the ends of the continuum," says Jerry Gillespie, director of the Western Institute for Food Safety and Security at the University of California, Davis. Roger Breeze, CEO of the Centaur Science Group, says sabotage is difficult in meat plants. "It's hard to imagine someone could contaminate an animal on a slaughter linethere are too many people" around, he says. He adds that theoretically, the most vulnerable spots would be the cold room (where carcasses hang before disassembly) and the area where hamburger is ground up. But those can be secured. For example, says Breeze, don't put someone hired yesterday in charge of the cold room or burger-mixing area.
  8. At the end of the line, supermarkets and restaurants are places where the system opens up to tampering. (Consider the recent attempted extortion on Wendy's: A customer allegedly planted a severed finger in her chili.) Ken Grover, vice president of corporate security at Darden Restaurants (which is not affiliated with Wendy's), says that after 9/11, his company added a security component to its quality auditing program. Darden auditors examine restaurants two to four times a year for contamination and security violations, such as unlocked doors or unattended food sitting on the back dock. Grover also has worked with his company's packaging department to increase security levels.

Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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