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A nation's food under threat?
By Erin Galbally
Minnesota Public Radio
October 14, 2002


As America looks for potential avenues where terrorists might attack, many people worry the nation's food supply could be among the targets. Food regulation is spread out across a dozen federal agencies. It's a fragmented approach that some feel makes the system particularly vulnerable. As a result some are asking whether the nation's food supply should be considered a matter of Homeland Security.

warning sign
Across the country, farmers are being careful of who is visiting their farms
(MPR Photo/Erin Galbally)

Duane Alberts raises prize-winning Holsteins on his dairy just outside of Pine Island. The 550 cows are all direct descendents from the small herd used to found the dairy nearly a century ago. Like many farmers, Alberts watched the United Kingdom suffer through mad cow disease and then hoof-and-mouth disease. Millions of animals had to be slaughtered.

Alberts says knowing how those diseases are spread has caused farmers to watch who's coming onto their land.

"Already this morning we've had two veterinarians on the farm. Last week we had a hoof trimmer on the farm. You're on the farm today. We have cattle buyers that come to the farm," explains Alberts.

Alberts says two of his closest neighbors now have large signs posted at the edge of their properties. The signs warn visitors to stay away.

Alberts cows
All of Duane Alberts' cows are direct descendents of the original herd at the dairy's opening, almost a century ago.
(MPR Photo/Erin Galbally)

"Farmers are watching what their neighbors do. We're very concerned when a neighbor does sponsor a tour group from a foreign country for example," says Alberts.

But that brand of watchfulness may not be enough in the event of biological attack. Harley Moon is a professor of animal pathology at Iowa State University. He's also recently completed a report for the federal government entitled "Countering Agricultural Bioterrorism".

"We are vulnerable to terrorist attacks with biological agents against our agriculture either be it in the live plant to live animal stage," says Moon.

Moon welcomes recent steps to tighten food inspections along the border. That's where the federal government has funneled a huge chunk of money. But more modest funding has been dispersed to individual states. For example, Minnesota received more than $500,000 to help with plant and animal disease surveillance and detection. Moon applauds that effort. But he believes greater emphasis needs to be placed on protecting the nation's domestically produced food supply.

"There are a wide variety of biological agents that are globally dispersed that the terrorist could identify and use to suit their particular resources and level of sophistication," Moon explains.

Moon says steps need to be taken to diffuse that threat. Those include streamlining the number of agencies involved in food regulation and creating space for food safety within in the Department of Homeland Security. It's a process that Moon predicts will take at least three years.

Steve Sturm
Steve Sturm, outside the All American Co-op in Stewartville. As feed manager here, he is watching of anything out of the ordinary, but says there is no formal testing for dangerous contaminants.
(MPR Photo/Erin Galbally)

In the meantime Moon commends the vigilance of people on the front line such as Steve Sturm, the feed department manager for the All American Co-op in Stewartville. With harvest underway, this is the start of his busy season. Sturm says he worries if a truckload of contaminated grain pulled in to the feed mill, it would escape detection.

"So, for example, if anthrax came and was spread in a load of corn, we're out of luck. It's just going to come right through our system. How do we safeguard against that? It's a good question," says Sturm.

Incoming grain is tested but only for quality such as moisture level and weed content. There is no testing for dangerous contaminants like anthrax. Sturm says plans to tighten regulation of the grain industry have been sidelined, not fast tracked since Sept. 11.

Sturm says he's just like dairy farmer Duane Alberts. He's relying on his powers of observation and keeping his fingers crossed that the worst never happens.

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