Agriculture officials discuss efforts to protect food supply from disease, attack

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During a recent meeting of the National Institute for Animal Agriculture in Chicago, the Department of Agriculture reiterated its commitment to protecting the nation's food supply from exotic diseases and deliberate attack.

In addition to requesting increased funding for agrosecurity in its 2003 budget, the USDA is looking seriously at implementing recommendations from a National Association of State Departments of Agriculture review of the country's ability to protect livestock and poultry.

Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman
Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman tells stakeholders at the NIAA meeting about budget increases to bolster agrosecurity.

The NASDA review called on the USDA to make improvements in several key areas. These include developing better methods of acquiring and sharing animal health information; bolstering national surveillance and response plans; expanding research, especially for state veterinary diagnostic laboratories; and developing of a national strategy that more effectively coordinates federal, state, and local resources responding to an animal health emergency.

The annual meeting of the NIAA, March 24-28, drew an estimated 200 participants, including livestock producers, veterinarians, business executives, scientists, academicians, state and federal animal health officials, and other stakeholders in the food animal and fiber industry.

AVMA President James H. Brandt was a keynote speaker at the meeting, where he spoke about the interconnectedness of the veterinary profession and how each sector—from the academician to the practitioner—works with the shared goal of protecting animal health. The AVMA was a sponsor of the NIAA meeting.

Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman explained how Sept. 11 has strengthened the partnerships among state and federal government, universities, and industry. "USDA is now working closely with Governor Tom Ridge and the Office of Homeland Security staff in understanding the whole issue of protecting our food supply," Veneman said.

The secretary noted that the defense appropriations act, signed in January, provided an additional $328 million in USDA funding for homeland security.

The USDA has proposed $2.367 billion in the fiscal year 2003 budget to fight sabotage and protect the nation's food supply from plant and animal disease. That is a $146 million increase from the current department budget.

A $48 million increase is being sought for animal health monitoring by the department's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, Veneman said. An extra $19 million will go to support agricultural quarantine inspection programs, which will provide additional inspectors, canine teams, and high definition X-ray machines at high-risk ports of entry.

The USDA will continue looking for ways to strengthen its partnerships and efficiently use resources, Veneman said. She commended the NIAA for bringing different parties to the table to talk about how to improve our food and agricultural systems. "That's the type of cooperation we need throughout all of our programs," Veneman said. "It's important to address agroterrorism and other industry issues and look to the future of animal agriculture."

Also at the meeting was APHIS Administrator Bobby Acord. He spoke at length about the Animal Health Safeguarding Review released last October by the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture.

In November 2000, APHIS commissioned an audit of the capabilities of federal and state governments, foreign governments, and the livestock industry to protect domestic livestock and human populations from animal diseases. The review found the current system adequate, but increased trade and global and economic interaction, among other variables, threaten to overwhelm it (see JAVMA, Feb. 15, 2002, page 432).

Gus Douglass, the West Virginia Agriculture commissioner and chairman of the NASDA review and advisory committee, said the review raised the question of the USDA's ability to react to major emergencies or threats to the food supply. "Present staffing may handle one, but multiple emergencies would spread staff very thin and may necessitate the recall and reemployment of former professionals," he said.

The USDA must be on equal footing with other important federal departments, such as state, health and human services, and defense, Douglass said.

According to APHIS administrator Acord, the agency has divided the recommendations into seven categories: national surveillance system; laboratory systems; exclusion activities; coordinating emergency response; organizational dynamics and communication; information technology; and accreditation. Issue groups dealing with each of the categories have also been formed, he said.

A draft of a final action plan should be ready this month, along with budget proposals and timetables. Acord added that safeguards triggered by the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in Great Britain and Sept. 11 have sped up the implementation process in some areas.

Acord committed himself to preventing the implementation process from being "over bureaucratized," which can hinder needed change. "I pledge to you that I will not let the bureaucracy overtake the recommendations," he said. "I will not allow the bureaucracy to keep the recommendations from being implemented."