U.S. Animal Agriculture Vulnerable to Attacks Because of Importance to U.S. Economy

ISU veterinarian details soft points and explains why an attack could be devastating.

Shortly after the dust settled in the wreckage of the Twin Towers in New York City that September day in 2001, the nation and it's law enforcement and intelligence agencies awakened to the fact the food supply is an important part of the U.S. economy's infrastructure.

"We had never thought of it that way," says Gary Bald, executive assistant FBI director, in charge of counter terrorism and counter intelligence. "Now we realize it, and we understand the threat of disease and pathogens•" on plants and animals. Bald, speaking to more than 700 members of the agriculture, education, law enforcement and intelligence gathering groups in Kansas City adds:

"There are too many animals, too many fields for any of us to unilaterally prevent the disruption of our food supply by terrorists. We have to work together."

His comments came Tuesday in the FBI's first International Symposium on Agro-Terrorism, a meeting he and others noted probably would not have drawn 100 participants before 9-11. The meeting continues through Thursday with case studies and networking between conferees.

So, why is animal ag so vulnerable?

Dr. James Roth, Iowa State University veterinarian and researcher, says U.S. animal agriculture has a number of unique factors that make it an easy target for domestic or foreign terrorists. He lists them:

  • High-density animal husbandry.
  • The high rate of transportation and mingling of animals.
  • No immunity in U.S. herds and flocks to foreign animal diseases. No vaccinations for such diseases.
  • Centralized feed supplies and distribution channels.
  • Poor to non-existent system to trace animals in the food chain.
  • Infections are widespread in other countries, making sources of pathogens easy to obtain.
  • Expanded international trade and travel.
  • Nearly unfettered border penetration by people and migratory animals.
  • Inadequate biosecurity procedures on most farms and ranches.
  • Inadequate to non-existent awareness of foreign disease symptoms by producers.
  • Vast isolated areas of animal production, outside watchful eyes of owners and neighbors.

"All of these situations exist, and with various domestic and foreign groups bent on disrupting our economy the situation is ripe for exploitation," he explains. "Intentional or accidental disease outbreaks in our animal industry could happen easily and with devastating effects."

Iowa State's Jim Roth, DVM, points out U.S. agriculture is vulnerable to agro-terrorism for a variety of reasons. He notes vast areas of unsupervised fields, the lack of adequate diagnostic labs, and relative ease of unleashing animal disease in North America.

Roth also points out his contention that the U.S. is inadequately equipped to deal with an animal disease outbreak.

"Our one animal disease center in Plum Island, NY, is not large enough to handle the diagnostic load that would be needed to combat a runaway pathogen.

"Also, as we try to develop vaccines we have no Level 4 biosafety facility for challenging animals with diseases to determine the efficacy of innoculants. Canada has such a room, but it will hold only four hogs or one 750-pound bovine. So, we have to rely on our international friends to test these products for us," he explains.

Roth also notes the decline in federal support for animal disease and diagnostic personnel over the past 20 years.

"APHIS has 400 veterinarians today. They had 1,400 in the 1980s," he says. "USDA-ARS has 40 veterinarians on staff."

"Also, there is a shortage of publicly funded veterinarians practicing in the food animal area, along with a shortage of DVMs with PhD degrees to do advanced research. The vet schools of the U.S. produce 2,500 veterinarians per year," he explains, adding most of them go into small and companion animal practice.

"Actually, there has been no federal investment in Veterinary Science in 30 years," he adds.

Roth lists the culprits

Roth says some of the top diseases that the U.S. might face in the animal arena are:

  • Foot-and-Mouth Disease
  • Rift Valley Fever
  • Nipah Virus
  • Avian Influenza
  • Swine Fever
  • Exotic Newcastle Disease

Al Qaeda and other foreign groups have vowed to disrupt the U.S. economy — and papers recovered in Afghanistan prove they were considering an attack on U.S. agriculture. Since agriculture accounts for 12% of the U.S. Gross Domestic Product and a giant portion of the nation's trade balance, an animal disease outbreak would be a prime tool to accomplish their goals, Roth explaines.

"In fact," he adds, "the top four diseases I mentioned, if they were unleashed properly, would accomplish just that."

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