Every family farmer has enough things to occupy his time without worrying about the threat of agroterrorism. And, like most people in agriculture, we would prefer to not have to worry about it. Unfortunately, we no longer have that option. 

The recognition of this threat was not instant. It took quite a bit of time for the federal government to recognize that a terrorist attack on agriculture could seriously endanger the public health and the vital infrastructure of our nation. The recognition of the danger is spelled out clearly in last year’s Presidential Directives by President Bush.   

While the Directives clearly spell out the federal and state governments’ responsibility in protecting our nation’s food supply and agriculture infrastructure, these documents recognize that the most effective deterrence will be local preparedness and response capacity. That’s where you come in.

Developing safeguards
Local preparedness must include agricultural producers and their employees, transporters, processors, wholesale operators, retailers, food distributors and consumers; in other words, everyone involved in producing food from farm to table.   If one thinks about the principles of defense (prevention, detection, response and recovery), this makes good sense. 

The Western Institute for Food Safety and Security (WIFSS) is working with California dairy producers to address each of these “principles of defense.” We seek to determine the best ways that dairy producers can prevent the introduction of highly infectious diseases into their herds or contamination of their products. Part of this emerging strategy is increasing security to limit access to dairies and processing plants, and increasing vigilance by everyone involved in food production.

It seems likely that the first ones to detect disease or mischief around the food systems will be people who work on or within the food-producing facilities. Certainly, prevention and early detection are ideal ways to forestall harm from either intentional or unintentional introduction of harmful agents into the food systems. If something harmful is detected early on by food industry employees, rapid and appropriate response can greatly limit the harm from terrorism or accidental contamination. Taking the right action early on can make a huge difference in the extent of harm done to the infrastructure of agriculture (for example, loss of animals) or the damage to human health.   If one thinks about it, improving prevention and detection preparedness in agriculture makes it a much-less-attractive target for terrorists.  

Your involvement is needed
WIFSS has a grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to help train front-line responders for potential agroterrorist attacks. We are helping local communities build response teams consisting of conventional-disaster responders (police, emergency agencies, firefighters, health-care providers) and agriculture. To be effective, the response teams must include people in every segment of the food-production chain. Those of us in agriculture must become informed about the potential dangers of terrorism and how we can work effectively with conventional disaster responders at the local, state and federal level to forestall attacks.

Most agree that response to and recovery from a terrorist attack will be most effective if communities have integrated, well-informed and rehearsed response teams in place before an attack or other disaster occurs. These teams are likely the best protection for our businesses and our nation’s security. 

Jerry R. Gillespie, is a veterinarian and director of the Western Institute for Food Safety and Security at the University of California, Davis