Texas institute targets agroterrorism

Published on April 15, 2002
information-circle This article is more than 3 years old

Recall the fear, confusion, and disruption—not to mention the lives lost—last year resulting from a few anthrax-laced letters mailed to certain media outlets and lawmakers in Washington, D.C.

Now imagine the chaos if weapons-grade anthrax spores were released in a meat processing plant that ships to markets across the country.

Never has the threat of biological terrorism been more real. To help protect U.S. agriculture and the nation's food supply from attack, Texas A&M University has established the Institute for Countermeasures Against Agricultural Bioterrorism.

Two years in the making, the institute was approved by the college's board of regents in December with the goal of strengthening national and state plans for preventing and minimizing biological attacks on crops, livestock, and food supplies.

The institute will coordinate and expand research and development in agroterrorism countermeasures at the university's College of Veterinary Medicine, Veterinary Medical Diagnostic Laboratory, Cooperative Extension program, Agricultural Experiment Station, and College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Satellite imaging, surveillance networking, field and laboratory diagnostics, and computerized information systems are some of the technologies that will be employed to develop new ways of identifying and responding to an attack.

"We're recognizing that the system that exists for both food safety and for the safety of crops and livestock is a system that works and one that can be improved by new technology and by better use of that technology," institute director, Dr. Neville Clarke, said.

Most recently, Dr. Clarke managed the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station. He formerly oversaw the Air Force's medical research, which included biologic and chemical defense for the military.

The chances of an agroterrorist attack in this country are low, but the vulnerability of the agriculture industry is high, according to Dr. Clarke. An attack could be launched two ways: infect crops and livestock at the preharvest stage, resulting in severe economic damage, or introduce the agent during processing to create a food safety hazard.

Dr. Clarke explained that the institute will participate at the state level by recommending biosecurity improvements in Texas to the Governor's Task Force on Homeland Security. Innovations achieved at this level might then be exported for implementation in other states, he said.

To function at capacity, the institute requires $5 million annually, which is being sought from the federal government. Dr. Clarke noted that Texas A&M and the federal government already work together in food safety; the Department of Agriculture operates a food safety laboratory at the university, as well as a training center for inspectors with the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service.