US ag and food defense efforts criticized

Sep 14, 2011 (CIDRAP News) – Although no successful attacks on the US agriculture and food system have been reported in the past decade, the nation's efforts to defend the system came in for a barrage of criticism yesterday about a lack of coordination and various other shortcomings.

The Government Accountability Office, congress's auditing arm, released a report saying there is no centralized coordination of the federal government's food and agriculture defense policy, with the major emphasis on problems at the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).

In addition, experts at a Senate subcommittee hearing echoed the GAO report and said the federal government has largely left the responsibility for defending the food and agriculture system against terrorists to the states and the private sector. They said the nation especially lacks capabilities for surveillance to detect attacks early.

"The result is, unfortunately, that we will, as we have been in the past, be blindsided by the next event," John T. Hoffman, a senior research fellow at the National Center for Food Protection and Defense (NCFPD) at the University of Minnesota, said in written testimony.

Policy launched in 2004
In 2004 President George W. Bush ordered the establishment of a national policy to defend the food and agriculture systems against terrorist attacks and major disasters, issuing Homeland Security Presidential Directive 9 (HSPD-9), the GAO report notes.

Seven years later, "there is no centralized coordination to oversee the federal government's overall progress implementing" the policy, says a summary of the GAO report that was presented at the Senate hearing. Earlier the White House Homeland Security Council, with support from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), made some efforts to oversee implementation, but those efforts "are no longer ongoing," the report states.

The USDA, in particular, lacks a department-wide strategy for implementing its many responsibilities under HSPD-9, the report says. Instead, the department assigned implementation responsibilities to its various agencies and then let them pick their own priorities. USDA officials told the GAO they would benefit from strategic direction from the National Security Staff concerning priorities and budgeting.

Challenges for veterinary stockpile
The report also cites some specific challenges the USDA faces in trying to implement the policy. One has to do with the National Veterinary Stockpile (NVS), which the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) manages as a defense against the 17 most damaging animal diseases, including highly pathogenic avian influenza.

The NVS has acquired various supplies to respond to each of the 17 diseases, but vaccines and diagnostic tests for some of them have not yet been developed or are too costly, the report says. Also, states may not be adequately prepared to receive and use NVS supplies, as only a third of the states that answered a survey said they had an NVS plan.

On the crop-defense front, the USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) is working on an estimated 30 to 50 recovery plans for "high-consequence plant diseases that may enter the United States." As of May 2011 the ARS had completed 13 plans, which provide a primer on the diseases and identify research needs. But the ARS has no systematic process to monitor and fill the research gaps noted in the plans, and it has not communicated the program effectively to stakeholders who need to know about it, the GAO found.

In other challenges, the report says USDA agencies have taken various steps to enhance recovery efforts for emergencies involving food and agriculture, but the department may be short of personnel to slaughter animals quickly in the face of a catastrophic outbreak of a highly contagious disease such as foot-and-mouth disease. APHIS officials said it could take as long as 80 days to "depopulate" a feedlot that houses 100,000 cattle.

The GAO made nine recommendations to improve implementation of the US food and agriculture defense policy. In written comments, the USDA, DHS, and Department of Health and Human Services generally concurred with the recommendations, the report says.

State perspective at hearing
Yesterday's hearing was held by the Senate Homeland Security Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management, the Federal Workforce, and the District of Columbia. Paul Williams, DVM, director of agriculture, food, and veterinary programs in the Georgia Emergency Management Agency, said most of the leadership and direction in ag and food defense and animal health emergency management have come from the states.

"Federal agencies have, for the most part, participated with a reluctant acceptance," Williams told the panel in written testimony. The subcommittee is chaired by Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii.

"States have grown increasingly frustrated with the lack of a comprehensive strategy for coordination and implementation of a state, regional, and national agriculture and food defense risk reduction plan that addresses the elements of the National Infrastructure Protection Plan," Williams stated.

He said groups of states in the South and the Midwest have formed regional alliances to work on ag and food defense in recent years. One problem the groups identified was the lack of a definition of food and agriculture critical infrastructure sites, which limited the chance of getting federal funds, he said. That was finally remedied at a meeting involving 30 states and DHS in early 2010, and by June 2010, more than 1,400 such sites had been identified and validated by DHS.

Williams said state efforts on ag biosecurity have been limited by a lack of federal support. For example, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has reported that from 2003 to 2007, the food and ag sector received only about 1% of State Homeland Security Grant Program funding, he said.

Hoffman, of the University of Minnesota, who also testified at the hearing, decried what he called a lack of federal leadership in food and ag defense. The NCFPD, where he works, is funded by DHS.

"The question is 'Who is in charge?'" he said in written testimony. "The answer is always something like, 'Well, actually no one is in charge.'"

He said the new FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), while promising to improve the nation's food safety, puts the burden of protecting the ag and food systems on the private sector, which may lead to unintended consequences.

"The FSMA is worded, from the perspective of many in the sector, so as to place this task and the overall strategic food system defense burden on the private sector itself, where there is little chance that such firms currently have a capability to fulfill this role," he said.

Much of Hoffman's testimony focused on what he described as a lack of surveillance for attacks on food and agriculture. "At present, our primary detection capability is the emergency room," he said.

Some recent major food contamination events could have been foreseen if a stronger, more integrated surveillance system had been in place, according to Hoffman. One example, he said, was the case of melamine-contaminated pet food imported from China.

Chinese companies had put melamine in exported food products as early as 2004, and these were detected in Europe and Australia, he said. "Yet there was no warning through any channel, public or private," of the risk that melamine-contaminated products could surface in the United States, until it happened in 2007, he added.

Williams said the nation needs new approaches to surveillance and detection. He suggested placing food and agriculture experts in the intelligence community. "We need to invigorate the focus and effort within this community on food and agriculture risks," he said.

AP report cites difficulties
In a related development, an Associated Press (AP) report published this week said the US government has spent "at least $3.4 billion on food counter-terrorism in the last decade, but key programs have been bogged down in a huge, multi-headed bureaucracy. And with no single agency in charge, officials acknowledge it's impossible to measure whether orchards or feedlots are actually any safer."

The report mentions some modest successes, but also some failures, including a DHS effort in 2008 to build a data integration center where food, agriculture, disease, and environmental officials could share surveillance data. Jeff Range, DHS's former chief medical officer, said the other agencies didn't want to share their data, with the result that "it just didn't work," according to the story.

See also:

Information on Sep 13 Senate subcommittee hearing, with links to written testimony

Summary of GAO report

Full text of GAO report

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