Agroterrorism Worries Surface; U.S. Agriculture Responding

The recent wave of bombings in London and Sharm El-Sheik, Egypt are a stark reminder of the importance of efforts currently underway to keep the nation's food supply safe from terrorism, according to an Aon agribusiness expert.

A Senate Agriculture Committee reviewing protection for U.S. agriculture recently heard testimony suggesting that sabotaging the nation's agriculture system would not be that difficult. Aon Agribusiness and Food Systems Group Senior Vice President Rick Shanks says he understands that perception exists, but that doesn't mean U.S. agriculture is standing pat.

"While agroterrorism is perceived as being alarmingly easy, the fact is, the cattle industry is implementing plans to protect against agricultural sabotage," he says. "While nothing is 100% secure, as a nation we've taken big steps in the right direction."

Shanks says another worry for food system experts is the importing of animal diseases from other countries. Senate committee members heard of three significant contagions that could threaten U.S. agriculture:

  • Rift Valley fever from Africa
  • Nipah virus from Asia
  • Avian influenza

All were described as significant threats because of their contagious nature and the fact that they can cause death in humans. Shanks says we are right to be concerned. "Avian flu, for example, is a significant threat to the U.S. poultry system as well as to humans if it breaks out here," he says. "There've been recent outbreaks of avian influenza in Connecticut and Rhode Island. U.S. poultry farmers should remain on guard and be ready to quickly depopulate and vaccinate if the Asian strain of the virus shows up in the U.S."

Agriculture Deputy Secretary Chuck Conner echoed that sentiment, telling the Senate committee that "diseases and pathogens do not acknowledge state or national borders. The threat to agriculture is very real."

Connor said the department has established formal ties with other governmental agencies like the Department of Homeland Security and the Food and Drug Administration to evaluate the terrorism threat to U.S. agriculture. He said his department is guided by a series of Homeland Security Presidential Directives (HSPD) aimed at strengthening the country's preparedness for terrorist acts.

One such directive seeks a national agriculture terrorism policy that includes addressing:

  • Awareness and warning
  • Vulnerability assessments
  • Mitigation strategies
  • Response planning and recovery
  • Research and development
  • Coordinated budgets

On August 18, 2005, Aon, in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the University of California's Western Institute for Food Safety & Security, is sponsoring the 2005 AgroTerrorism Assembly at the Hyatt Regency Hotel, Sacramento, Calif. The Assembly is designed to inform community leaders from both government and business; food industry leaders; and local, state and federal emergency responders of the risks and vulnerabilities of agroterrorism and other food-related disasters.

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