President Bush has introduced a policy for protecting America's agriculture and food from terrorist attacks, disasters, and other emergencies, such as major disease outbreaks.
Issued Jan. 30 by the White House, Homeland Security Presidential Directive-9 makes the Department of Homeland Security responsible for coordinating federal programs aimed at protecting U.S. agriculture and food from diseases, pests, and toxins.
"This is the president's attempt to lay down internal, administration guidance on how we approach the issue of agriculture and food defense in the country," Dr. Curt J. Mann explained.
As director of agriculture, food, and water security on the Homeland Security Council, Dr. Mann helped write HSPD-9, which, he said, had been in the works in an interagency forum since June of 2003.
Bush convened the Office of Homeland Security shortly after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. When the office was dissolved, the Homeland Security Council and Department of Homeland Security were created.
Similar to the National Security Council in its structure, the Homeland Security Council focuses on domestic, rather than international issues. As part of the Executive Office of the President, the council coordinates homeland security activities among executive-level departments and agencies, and promoting effective development and implementation of such policies.
One of the more salient features of HSPD-9, according to Dr. Mann, is that it establishes a single national policy for all programs related to agriculture and food. "The president's directive creates a central point of focus for a very large, diverse, and complex system that doesn't just belong to one agency of government," Dr. Mann elaborated.
Veterinary medicine is a critical component of the president's new defense policy outlined in HSPD-9, which significantly expands federal animal health-related initiatives.
"We view that presidential directive as the single most important document coming from Washington, D.C., in support of veterinary medicine and food supply medicine in the history of this organization," said Dr. Richard Sibbel, chair of the AVMA Animal Agriculture Liaison Committee. Committee members reviewed the directive in February shortly after it was issued.
"This is the first time a president has put to paper the viewpoint that protecting the food supply by using veterinarians in all capacities is one of the preeminent needs for the American people," Dr. Sibbel explained.
For instance, the policy calls for creation of a national stockpile of animal drugs and vaccines to respond to serious animal diseases; grants to veterinary colleges for expanding training in exotic animal diseases, epidemiology, and public health; and inclusion of veterinary diagnostic laboratories in national networks of federal and state laboratories.
Moreover, various departments and agencies are to devise methods of tracking specific animals, commodities, and food; account for agriculture and food emergencies in the National Response Plan; and draft plans for providing state-of-the-art agriculture biocontainment laboratories for researching foreign animal and zoonotic diseases.
The directive also requires developing "robust, comprehensive, and fully coordinated surveillance and monitoring systems" for food, public health, and water quality, and animal and wildlife diseases, as well.
Dr. James T. Case, professor of clinical diagnostic informatics at the University of California-Davis, is encouraged by what he hopes is the government's holistic approach to surveillance for diseases and toxins.
"The important part (of HSPD-9) is animal health is being specifically mentioned as part of the coordinated surveillance activities," said Dr. Case, chair of the AVMA Committee on Veterinary Medical Informatics. "That means that veterinary medicine has finally become an equal player, I hope, in homeland security."
There is much in HSPD-9 to make Dr. Case and others dealing with animal health optimistic, such as Dr. Lawrence Heider, executive director of the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges.
The AAVMC has grown concerned about the trend of too few veterinarians pursuing careers in public service and research. But the president's directive just might help allay those worries.
The policy directs the departments of Agriculture, Health and Human Services, and Homeland Security to establish internships, fellowships, and other postgraduate opportunities for professional development and specialized training in agriculture and food protection that provide for homeland security professional work force needs.
"Those are exactly the kinds of things we've been talking about that need to be done," Dr. Heider said.
Federal agencies are also encouraged. In the president's 2005 budget, there's an increase of more than $40 million for the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service pertaining to HSPD-9 activities, according to Kevin Shea, deputy administrator for policy and program development at APHIS.
Dr. Mann noted that the president's budget has dedicated $568 million to agriculture and food security.
A novel aspect of the presidential directive is the initiative to create a new biologic threat awareness capacity that will enhance detection and characterization of a terrorist attack, according to Dr. Mann.
This new capacity will build upon the improved and upgraded surveillance systems, while also integrating and analyzing domestic and international surveillance and monitoring data collected from human health, animal health, plant health, food, and water quality systems.
"It is a new concept," Dr. Mann explained. "We're trying to get this off the ground by combining systems that should have natural alliances, such as food and multiple agriculture systems, and then take that and tie it into human health and the intelligence community."
In April, the AVMA Animal Agriculture Liaison Committee will make a number of recommendations to Executive Board about working with the president, Congress, and federal departments and agencies to effectively implement HSPD-9.
Homeland Security Presidential Directive-9 can be read in its entirety at www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2004/02/20040203-2.html.