Protecting America’s Food from Agro-Terrororism

By Senator Richard Burr

As you read this, the United Kingdom is continuing to respond to a potentially devastating outbreak of Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) among cattle. This month's discovery brings back memories of the major outbreak which hit the country in 2001, causing $5 billion in losses to farms and rural businesses and resulted in the slaughter of four million animals. FMD is a deadly, contagious cattle and swine disease. While the disease occurs naturally around the world, the United States has been free of FMD since 1929 when the last of nine outbreaks was eradicated.

Thankfully, FMD does not infect humans. But animals in the U.S. are susceptible to FMD viruses. If it reached our shores, the virus could spread rapidly to all regions of the country through routine livestock movement between farms, feedlots, and processing plants unless it was detected early and eradicated immediately. An outbreak similar to the 2001 UK incident could result in economic losses here ranging from $10 to $33 billion through long-term export bans on products, a decrease in tourism from the fear of the disease, and the destruction of animals. If FMD, or another highly contagious disease or pest, was deliberately released in the United States through an act of agro-terrorism, the economic and human health impacts could be far worse.

Our agriculture and food system is an important part of our nation's economy and our national security. At $68 billion in revenues each year, agriculture is North Carolina's largest industry. North Carolina is the second largest producer of hogs and turkeys in the nation. We must be prepared to detect, respond to, and recover from a natural or man-made catastrophic animal disease outbreak or food contamination.

Our agriculture and food system is vulnerable to attack. Many farms are geographically isolated with few biosecurity measures in place. And livestock is frequently concentrated in confined spaces. For example, 80 to 90 percent of U.S. cattle production is concentrated in less than 5 percent of the nation's feedlots. An attack on just one major livestock production area could begin a devastating domino effect felt through the entire system.

I believe the federal government must work more closely with State and local governments and private business to make sure responsibilities are clearly defined and to make certain the right people have the right resources to protect us from, and respond to, an attack.

I propose a dedicated national effort - the National Agriculture and Food Defense Act - with the goal of defending our nation and our farms against the potential human health and economic consequences of a natural or man-made catastrophic animal or plant disease, or food contamination. I introduced this legislation in July in the U.S. Senate.

This roadmap to prepare for, detect, respond to, and recover from an agro-terror attack or catastrophic food emergency includes five key actions.

First, someone must be in charge. In my bill, I identify the U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security as the lead coordinator in protecting critical infrastructure and key resources, including the agriculture and food system in a national emergency. The U.S. Secretary of Agriculture would remain responsible for day-to-day oversight of agriculture and certain food products, and would hire a new USDA Under Secretary for Protection, Preparedness, and Response. Food safety standards enforced by the states, the USDA and the Food and Drug Administration would remain in place and would be protected in my legislation.

Next, we must establish a coordinated national strategy for protecting our agriculture and food system, including emergency preparedness, detection, response, and recovery goals. Third, we must improve agriculture and food defense capabilities at the State level by providing guidance, assistance, and financial support from the federal government.

Fourth, we must enhance public-private partnerships, since the majority of our agriculture and food system is privately owned and operated. Through improved information sharing between government and industry partners, we will be better prepared for potential emergencies.

Lastly, we must improve detection and response capabilities. We can speed up detection of animal and food-related emergencies by developing on-site diagnostic tools and integrating nation-wide animal, plant, and food diagnostic laboratory networks. And we must be able to deploy animal vaccines and drugs to an outbreak within 24 hours.

The UK's chief veterinary officer has said this is a "crucial week" in the fight against this current FMD outbreak. We all hope and assume the disease will be contained and eradicated. At the same time, we must consider the potential human health and economic impacts of such a naturally occurring or man-made disease outbreak in the United States and make sure we would be able to respond effectively.

Senator Richard Burr serves on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee as well as the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. During the previous Congress, Senator Burr authored and passed The Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Act to improve our public health and medical preparedness for, and responses to, emergencies and disasters. The bill was signed into law in December of 2006.