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Food Safety Experts at AAAS Briefing Urge More Protection for Crops and Livestock
While the United States has vastly increased funding for homeland security and the military, two food safety experts warned that gaps remain in the nation's ability to adequately protect its crops and livestock from devastating pests and pathogens.
The experts cautioned that these threats, introduced naturally, accidentally or intentionally, have the potential to disrupt the U.S. economy through reduced food quality and quantity, domestic and international embargoes, and lost jobs. They were speaking at a Capitol Hill briefing sponsored by the AAAS Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy.
"While an outbreak would most likely not cause malnutrition or food shortages in the U.S., it would affect food quality and raise costs for farmers trying to protect their crops," said Jacqueline Fletcher, Sarkeys Distinguished Professor of entomology and plant pathology at Oklahoma State University. "When you factor in the cost of pesticides, destroying tainted crops, and breeding crops for resistance, it could make a major difference for the consumers."
In addition to economic effects, an attack on U.S. crops and livestock would have dramatic psychological effects, including a loss of confidence in the government, the speakers said at the 2 April briefing.
"While bioterrorism is about killing humans, agroterrorism is not necessarily about killing cows," said David Franz, director of the National Agricultural Biosecurity Center at Kansas State University and senior biological scientist at Midwest Research Institute. "It's more an economic assault on our national security and infrastructure."
The briefing came on the heels of congressional hearings looking into the Food and Drug Administration's mishandling of pet food, spinach, and peanut butter recalls. Congressional leaders and consumer watchdog groups charged agency officials with being incapable of monitoring the safety of U.S. food sources and properly informing the public of health concerns.
"Agricultural products are vital to our economy and sustainability because they affect our food supply, trade, energy, and animal feed," said Kavita Berger, senior program associate at CSTSP. "With the recent recalls, it is even more vital that our policy makers, industry, and the general public communicate about how to keep our food safe."
When asked about proposed changes, Robert E. Brackett, director of the FDA's food-safety division, conceded that while the FDA needed improve monitoring systems, it is impractical to scrutinize every processing plant in the U.S.
"We have 60,000 to 80,000 facilities that we're responsible for in any given year," Brackett told the Washington Post, suggesting that processing plants should incorporate safety checkpoints into their procedures.
Similarly, Fletcher believes a strategy for securing the nation's food supply must incorporate preventive strategies along with a response mechanism that can limit the outbreak by isolating the tainted crops.
To prevent the more than 550 exotic pathogens and pests that potentially pose a significant risk to U.S. crops, Fletcher urged the U.S. to boost its national border protection plan by increasing the inspection of imported food items (currently at 2%), improve pubic awareness about the signs of an outbreak, and enhance the nation's preparedness to respond quickly to limit the effects of an introduced plant pathogen.
In addition, Fletcher believes that the federal government must increase funding for basic agricultural research to better understand threatening agricultural pathogens and encourage local officials to form response networks to increase communication between scientists, first-responders, the federal government, and farmers. Enhancing coordination among federal agencies is also a critical need.
"To concentrate only in prevention—to plan to see an outbreak its early stages—is like spotting a needle in a haystack," said Fletcher.
Franz believes that the United States should prepare for those pathogens that could do the most economic damage, while preparing more broadly for others.
For example, he contends that the U.S. must prepare specifically for foot and mouth disease (FMD), a highly communicable viral disease of cattle and swine characterized by fever and blister-like lesions leading to the loss of milk and meat production.
According to Franz, FMD has caused the loss of more than 2 million animals and $10 billion in the United Kingdom and an estimated four million pigs and $7 billion in Taiwan.
"While some of the other pathogens are extremely dangerous—African Swine Fever, Newcastle, Rinderpest—their likelihood of devastating the U.S. livestock industry is significantly less," he said.
Franz believes that the United States has done a good job preventing natural outbreaks in livestock populations, but urged the U.S. to increase the total amount of U.S. homeland security funding going to agriculture (currently at 2%). In addition, he urged the government to increase funding to basic research, expanded vaccination programs, and to foster increased local, national, and international cooperation.
"With a lot of things, the U.S. likes to see immediate results over the short term," he said. "But with safeguarding our food supply—livestock and crops—we must plan for the long term by increasing education, awareness, and policy solutions."
The briefing was the second of two planned Hill briefings on agricultural biosecurity sponsored by CSTSP. The first briefing, on 13 March, featured Francis F. Busta, director of the National Center for Food Protection and Defense at the University of Minnesota, and David Hennessy, professor of economics with Iowa State University's Center for Agriculture and Rural Development.
3 May 2007