Report urges USDA to tighten oversight of pandemic planning

Feb 11, 2008 (CIDRAP News) – The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has made notable progress on plans to detect and contain H5N1 avian influenza outbreaks in birds, but some management missteps at the agency could hamper its response capability, according to a recent audit by the department's inspector general.

In the 33-page report, the inspector general's office reviewed 55 tasks assigned to the USDA in the Bush administration's national pandemic influenza strategy that were to be completed by February 2007. The USDA is responsible for leading the veterinary response to an H5N1 threat.

The agency has made significant progress on initiatives such as developing an interagency outbreak-response playbook, implementing a bird biosecurity program, and creating scripted risk messages, inspectors determined. But inadequate management controls in some areas—such as lack of testing for new or revised procedures—undermine confidence that the agency is ready to respond to an H5N1 threat to US birds and poultry, the report says.

"Because this testing was not done, USDA lacks assurance that policies, procedures, and plans developed or revised in response to the [national pandemic] plan will work as designed in the event of an outbreak," the auditors wrote.

The report faults the agency for inaccurately reporting its progress on two initiatives to the president's Homeland Security Council (HSC), the White House group that authored the federal government's two pandemic planning strategy and implementation plan documents. One initiative involved the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services' (APHIS's) ability to identify high-risk bird importers and withdraw their federal live-bird import permits. In the other instance, the inspector general found that APHIS erroneously reported the status of its personal protective equipment stockpiles.

"APHIS reported that it stockpiled enough personal protective equipment in strategic locations to protect workers. However the equipment has been stockpiled at one location," the report states.

Better management controls, such as second-party review of tasks and assigning tasks to the correct officials, could have prevented such reporting errors, according to the report.

The USDA should have tested new or revised procedures that relate to pandemic planning, but the agency has not tested 14 of 26 tasks for which it was designated the lead agency, the report states. Though the federal plan does not require the USDA to test the procedures, APHIS does stipulate that procedures should be tested.

To cite an example of problems that can occur when tasks are not properly tested, the report says a USDA Web site designed to provide early warnings of outbreaks in other countries was not updated more than 48 hours after a February 2007 H5N1 outbreak in England. "A delay could allow [customs] agents to let infected birds into the United States to contaminate domestic flocks and the food supply," the authors wrote.

The inspector general's office also found that the USDA had not followed through on two of the recommendations from its previous audit report, which was issued in June 2006. One was that the agency needed to include live-bird markets and other "off-farm" sites in its response plan, and the other was to establish a procedure for notifying animal owners about impending outbreak risks.

In a response letter from the USDA that accompanied the audit, Cindy Smith, administrator of APHIS, wrote that the agency recognizes that planning and preparedness "is an ongoing continual improvement process." She said the agency agreed with a number of the recommendations in the report. For example, Smith wrote that in the future the agency will require first-line supervisor clearance when it reports the status of pandemic planning activities and that it will more closely track related tasks.

While Smith agreed that testing of procedures is important, she pointed out that recent events, such as a 2007 low-pathogenic avian influenza outbreak in West Virgina, provided useful tests of several of the USDA's response capabilities. She also wrote that several tasks that the auditors recommended for testing, such as communications messaging and distribution of avian flu information to states and localities, are tested daily through the USDA's normal operations.

See also:

Jun 21, 2006, CIDRAP News story "Report faults USDA's avian flu surveillance"

USDA inspector general report on pandemic preparedness

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