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Thursday, March 4th, 2021

Better federal coordination needed to protect nation’s food supply from biological attacks

Amy Kircher

Greater coordination between the Department of Agriculture and other federal agencies like the Department of Homeland Security is needed to help prevent a biological attack on the U.S. agriculture industry that threatens the nation’s food supply, a panel of experts on agrodefense said last week.

The Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense hosted a meeting at Kansas State University to discuss the challenges and solutions in defending the nation’s agriculture industry from chemical and biological threats.

A biological attack on agricultural plants and animals would cause economic damage, negatively impact the food supply, and potentially cause loss of life. Biological agents such as anthrax or bot­ulinum toxin cause harm to exposed humans, while agents that spread from animal to animal such as foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) are a threat to the nation’s livestock.

“Agriculture is nearly a trillion-dollar sector of our economy and the impact economically, socially, and in health as we consider those threats as they pose today with regard to both livestock and grain is something we ought to take very seriously,” said former U.S. Sen. Tom Daschle (D-SD), a member of the Blue Ribbon panel.

The panel has raised a red flag about the lack of a comprehensive national strategy to prepare for and prevent a biological attack, whether stemming from biotoxin sources found in nature or acquired from laboratories and weaponized. It recommended changes to U.S. policies in 2015 that would strengthen the nation’s biodefense position.

Amy Kircher, director of the Food Protection and Defense Institute at the University of Minnesota, said, “We must understand supply-chain security from the farm to the marketplace.”

She cited an incident in New Zealand, where it took 10 months for authorities to identify the perpetrator that put pesticides in infant formula and threatened a larger commercial release.

Recently in Greece would-be terrorists threatened Coca-Cola, Unilever and Nestle products with chlorine and hydrochloric acid while leaving the packing intact.

“Varying parts of our government and the industry own the responsibility to prevent and deter adulteration in our supply chain, yet we do not collectively talk,” Kircher said.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the USDA are responsible for the regulation of food while DHS is responsible for consequence management, she said. The FBI has the authority to investigate criminal activity, but state health departments may individually be assessing risks to the food supply without contacting law enforcement.

A priority must be placed on broadening the interagency engagement at the national and state levels on protecting the nation’s food system against foreign manipulation, theft and intentional adulteration, Kircher said. Additionally, public-private engagement within the food and agriculture sector must be broadened and strengthened.

Meanwhile, the growth of technology also has created vast security problems for the food and agriculture industry. Federal agencies must work together to strengthen cyber security to protect the food supply, Kircher said.

Regarding threats to the nation’s livestock industry, today there is a lack of availability of vaccines protecting against viral diseases like FMD, which cause high fever and blisters inside the mouth and on the feet of cattle. The virus can spread through the wind or from contact with infected farm equipment and can devastate entire herds in a short amount of time.

“An FMD event in the United States will have severe, profound, and long-lasting negative impacts on the U.S.,” said Steve Parker, director of North American veterinary public health at Merial, an animal health company. “The USDA estimates that economic losses due to an FMD event could range from $15 billion to $100 billion per year.”

Parker said the current North America FMD Vaccine Bank stockpile is undersized, having only enough doses for a limited-scope FMD outbreak and that no large-scale vaccine production was currently taking place. Parker said within four days of activation, Merial could produce up to 2.5 million vaccine doses from each of its vaccine antigen concentrate strains.

“I keep saying that if we can detect a pathogen [in crops] we can identify it, but my mind keeps going back to the West Nile virus,” said Stephen Higgs, director at the Biosecurity Research Institute. “When it first occurred in New York in 1999, we were totally unprepared. In five years it spread throughout the United States. We still don’t have a vaccine 17 years later.”

Higgs said the response to that outbreak was delayed because experts misidentified the virus in its infancy. The government’s response was further hindered because the United States did not have enough facilities in place or researchers available to study patterns of the virus.

“When using punishment as a deterrent [to a bioattack], it’s not so easy to accomplish,” Higgs said. “However, I think people knowing you have the capacity to stop an incident is in itself an effective deterrent. But for the nothing-ventured, nothing-gained type of perpetrators, it’s not a sufficient deterrent.”

“We need to be able to respond and retaliate with effective sanctions,” Higgs added.