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Agricultural Biosecurity: Protecting the Nation’s Food Supply

For most who recall the foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) outbreak that swept through Britain in the spring and summer of 2001, those months can be boiled down to a single indelible image: A massive, smoking pyre of dead cattle, all culled to prevent the disease from spreading. It was an image repeated throughout the British countryside, as farmers were forced to exterminate a lifetime of work and centuries of selective breeding.

Not as many people remember the numbers: more than 2,000 confirmed cases; nearly 6.5 million sheep, cattle, and pigs killed to control the disease; and an estimated loss of $16 billion to the United Kingdom’s economy, including huge losses to the tourism industry. After the outbreak, around 3,200 farmers in the U.K. quit the livestock business for good.

Foot-and-Mouth Disease

Foot-and-mouth disease is highly contagious and spreads quickly among cloven-hoofed animals such as pigs, sheep, cows, and goats. USDA photo

FMD, a highly contagious virus with multiple strains, or serotypes, each of which requires its own specialized vaccine, remains one of the livestock industry’s biggest threats. It can be spread through the air or by contact, and though it doesn’t adversely affect humans, they are often carriers of the disease, which spreads quickly among clove-hoofed animals such as cows, pigs, sheep, and goats. Outbreaks like those in Britain have caused catastrophic losses. Until 1997, when Taiwan suffered an outbreak among its herds of swine, it was among the top pork producers in the world; afterwards, its export market was in ruins, with an accumulated $6.9 billion in losses.

The last outbreak of FMD in the United States occurred in 1929, and today, the biggest risk of the disease – of any epizootic disease, or animal epidemic – is posed by infected animal imports. Considered less likely, but not outside the realm of possibility, is the introduction of the disease by a bioterrorist.

In the post-9/11 world, Americans’ fears of terrorism involve hijacked planes, dirty bombs, or cyber attacks – but few are aware of the damage an epizootic such as FMD could do. In a November 2011 report, the National Research Council, the working arm of the National Academies of the United States, estimated that a foot-and-mouth outbreak in the United States could cost between $9 billion and $50 billion.

Agricultural Biosecurity

Grains are tested by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection before being allowed into the U.S. U.S. Customs and Border Protection photo

To the nation’s agricultural producers, whether infectious animal diseases – or other threats to the nation’s food supply, such as plant pathogens, quarantined pests, or invasive alien species – are introduced by an imported animal or a bioterrorist hardly matters; losses in either case could be devastating. To the government and research entities charged with protecting the nation’s agriculture industry and food supply, however, different scenarios demand different approaches.

The agricultural biosecurity system that has evolved in the United States – especially since Sept. 11, 2001 – is a complicated apparatus, with several lines of defense.

 

The First Lines

Today, virtually all of the regulations that protect U.S. agriculture from plant and animal diseases and pests are developed and enforced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture – but how these regulations are administered has, in some ways, changed over the past decade. It used to be that travelers entering the United States would be questions by a uniformed USDA official, who in some instances might also inspect their luggage. Those interrogations and inspections are now conducted by Customs and Border Protection (CBP), a law enforcement agency of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

Agricultural Biosecurity

A U.S. Customs and Border Protection agriculture specialist explains how broccoli is examined for pests and plant diseases during U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano’s recent tour at the Pharr import lot in the Rio Grande Valley, Texas. U.S. Customs and Border Protection photo

If CBP inspectors at a land border crossing, seaport, or airport encounter something they consider a potential threat, they send it along to a laboratory or other facility for further examination and identification by experts from the agency they supplanted: USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), which is charged with protecting the health of the animals and plants in the nation’s food supply. If APHIS inspectors find anything – plant, animal, material, or object – that poses a risk and cannot enter the United States, they handle it under applicable regulations.

Domestically, the biosecurity of agricultural products is pursued by two different USDA agencies charged with protecting the health of animals, plants, and their human consumers, who are at risk of several diseases – salmonella, listeria, trichinosis, and many others – that can be carried by tainted agricultural products. Livestock or poultry slaughtered for meat in the United States, as well as eggs and egg products, are inspected at the site of slaughter or processing by officials from the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). Crops prepared for market – vegetables, wheat, rice, and corn, for example – are inspected by USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS).

APHIS is also the agency responsible for mitigating the impacts of invasive species on crops and livestock through quarantine and eradication efforts. In 2010, for example, after several European grapevine moths were discovered in the vineyards of California’s Napa Valley, APHIS and the California Department of Food and Agriculture established a quarantine around some of the nation’s most valuable farmland, where an acre of wine grapes can yield up to $15,000 in a season. The moth, a native of southern Europe and the Mediterranean whose larvae feed on the flowers and fruit of grapes and other plants, cycles through three generations in one growing season, making it particularly destructive.

Invasive Species

The sweetpotato whitefly (also known as the silverleaf whitefly) is a serious agricultural pest and invasive species that feeds on agricultural crops such as tomatoes, squash, and broccoli, as well as ornamental plants. The whitefly was first found in the United States in poinsettia crops in Florida during the mid-1980s. It was found to have moved to tomatoes and other fruit and vegetable crops less than a year later and, within five years, had caused more than $100 million in damage to the Texas and California agriculture industries. Photo by Aleksander Dragnes

According to APHIS spokesperson Larry Hawkins, federal and state efforts have eradicated the moth in adjoining Sonoma and Solano counties – and greatly diminished it in Napa County, where it first appeared. “We’ll probably get rid of it in that county next year,” Hawkins said.

Invasive species pose a greater risk than ever before, said Hawkins. “We have so much international trade that our exposure to exotic plants, animals, and plant and animal diseases is dramatically different than it was several years ago, when you’d put them on a slow boat, and it took weeks for them to get here, And many of these products – fruits, vegetables, animals, and meat – had to be refrigerated.” Today, by contrast, “It’s possible for me to walk outside my home in Thailand, go pick some exotic Asian fruit, put it in a box, put my sister’s address on it in Petaluma, Calif., have it picked up by FedEx, and overnight it all the way to the U.S. And all the maggots on the inside of that delectable fruit will get a free ride. They didn’t have to be refrigerated, because they were going to be there the next morning.”

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Craig Collins is a veteran freelance writer and a regular Faircount Media Group contributor who...