Outbreak Points out Vulnerability of U.S. Food Supply

Article excerpt

Byline: Jeffrey Sparshott, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

An isolated case of mad cow disease and an outbreak of bird flu on U.S. farms indicates the vulnerability of American agriculture to disease - either spread accidentally or intentionally - and the economic disruption that could result.

Federal and Texas agriculture officials said yesterday that they had diagnosed a highly contagious and, for poultry, deadly strain of avian influenza on a Texas farm. The disease also spread to live bird markets in Houston.

The quick spread of disease among highly concentrated animal populations is one soft spot in the U.S. food system that terrorists may exploit to taint food and damage the economy, according to government and industry officials.

President Bush last month issued a Homeland Security Presidential Directive to establish a national policy to defend the agriculture and food system against terrorist attacks, major disasters and other emergencies.

The Homeland Security Department will take the lead in coordinating numerous government agencies, farmers, processors and medical professionals involved in an "extensive, open, interconnected, diverse and complex structure providing potential targets for terrorist attacks," the president said in the directive.

"We should provide the best protection possible against a successful attack on the United States agriculture and food system, which could have catastrophic health and economic effects," he said.

The agriculture and food sectors offer multiple, often vulnerable targets from farm to table - including crops, livestock, processing and distribution facilities, wholesale and retail outlets, storage, transportation and research labs, Lawrence J. Dyckman, director of natural resources and the environment for the General Accounting Office, told a congressional panel in November.

Farmers long have been attuned to the dangers of diseases such as mad cow disease and avian influenza.

"This is nothing new for agriculture, but certainly it shows that we are a vulnerable sector and we have to work to make sure we have the resources and dollars to continue a vigorous program [against animal disease and pest control]," said Caroline Rydell, director of congressional relations with the American Farm Bureau, an industry group.

But a terrorist attack on the food system would bring a new level of uncertainty to a vital sector of the economy.

Food production accounts for about 10 percent of annual economic output in the country, according to the Commerce Department. And although farming directly employs less than 3 percent of the American population, one in eight persons works in an occupation directly supported by food production, according to a study published this year by the Rand National Defense Research Institute, a federally funded research and development center, for the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

"Unfortunately, the agriculture and food industries are vulnerable to deliberate [and accidental] disruption," Peter Chalk, an associate political scientist at Rand, said in the report.

"The fiscal downstream effect of a major act of sabotage against the food industry would . …