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Food Safety Experts Urge U.S. Agencies to Communicate in Food Emergencies
To improve the security of the United States' food supply, two experts at a AAAS-sponsored briefing urged the nation to improve coordination between its federal agencies, local governments, and Cooperative Extension organizations responsible for detecting and responding to a food or agriculture emergency.
By engaging state and local governments in education programs on how to identify and report potential food safety threats, federal agencies like the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration, and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security will be better able to provide a quick, appropriate response that will minimize the economic and heath consequences of an outbreak.
"The federal agencies must recognize that they are not going to be the first to know about potential vulnerabilities of a food system," said David Filson, a state agriculture emergency response coordinator located at The Pennsylvania State University. "Because early detection of an outbreak almost always comes from the state or local level, there must be communication throughout all levels of the system."
The 21 June Capitol Hill briefing was sponsored by the AAAS Center for Science, Technology, and Security Policy (CSTSP) as part of its ongoing series on food and agriculture security.
Filson, along with Abigail Borron, a disaster communication specialist located at Purdue University in Indiana, are part of the Extension Disaster Education Network (EDEN), a collaborative, multi-state effort to improve the delivery of disaster mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery services to local producers and governments.
The network, supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture under the Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service, through the Land-Grant Cooperative Extension system, has representatives at most land-grant universities around the country that serve as educators and intermediaries between the federal government and local communities. EDEN has membership representation from every state and three US territories.
Following Hurricane Katrina and the first U.S. case of mad cow disease, for example, the EDEN coordinated a response and recovery that helped communities reduce the emotional and economic consequences from the crises.
"Although productive communication may occur among the highest levels of the federal agencies, it somehow must be translated into policy for a specific community," said Kavita Berger, senior program associate for the AAAS Center.
A recent EDEN national survey found that 86% of people believe that an agricultural, food, or water bioterrorist attack is "likely or very likely" to occur somewhere in the United States, with only about one-quarter thinking it will occur in their county.
In another survey, around 80% of people surveyed said they would like the government to provide more information about how to protect the nation's water supply; 50% would like to know more about animal biosecurity; and 37% have concerns about plant and crop security.
"There is a definite desire coming from the local communities for the federal government to engage in local education, especially on security issues," said Borron.
In addition to increased coordination with state and local governments, Filson said that the federal agencies need to do a better job of communicating among the other agencies that have a role in monitoring or responding to food emergencies.
"Too many federal agencies only send information up the chain of command within their own agency as opposed to also alerting other agencies of a potential threat," he said.
"When an agency like the Department of Agriculture has concerns about a crop in the Midwest, they should not only share this information with their superiors, but also with their colleagues at the Department of Homeland Security so they can form a response should the situation develop," Filson added.
Both speakers agreed that that no amount of local, state, or federal oversight can completely eliminate the U.S. food system's vulnerability to interference, either natural or human-caused.
"The public must accept that there will never be zero vulnerability," Filson said. "There are just too many people over too many miles and with a lot of unknowns."
The speakers concluded that a significant part of the government's role in creating a food security policy should be based on previous incidents, following a careful review of which strategies were successful and which failed.
"The government at all levels must collect and share lessons learned," Filson said. "Too often, the officials lose these the valuable lessons or do not apply them to similar situations in a different part of the country."
9 July 2007