Increasing biosecurity could save your business

By Chris Crawford

General food-safety standards have become subject to an intensifying national spotlight in the wake of foodborne illnesses caused by E. coli in spinach. At this time, growers should take the opportunity to assess their operations’ safeguards against the added threat of intentional crop contamination—also known as bioterrorism or agroterrorism.

 “I think everyone’s awareness has been heightened with the potential for contamination,” says Carl Shaffer, president of the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau and owner of Carl T. Shaffer Farms in Mifflinville, Pa.

Shaffer added a padlocked gate to his farm, where he grows green beans, corn and wheat, to curb vandalism and unwanted trespassing.

“Why take a chance? I’d like to keep the farm a little safer now,” Shaffer says.

Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns recently discussed biosecurity at the 2006 International Symposium on Agroterrorism in Kansas City, Mo. Vance Publishing Corp., The Grower’s parent company, sponsored the event.

“I’m certainly not sharing any real secrets, but there are bioterrorism threats, when something is introduced into the livestock population or the food supply,” Johanns told a group of Vance editors before his speech at the conference. “That would scare people, and there is no better way of shaking people’s confidence than making them wonder about their food. That is at the top of the list.”

Richard Hoenish, training and education coordinator for the Western Plant Diagnostic Network, which is based at the University of California, Davis, says that if growers and companies ignore bioterrorism, the consequences could be devastating.

“Just look at the whole spinach debacle,” Hoenish says. “They probably lost $200 million dollars in two weeks.”

Retail sales of both packaged and loose spinach fell about 80 percent for the four-week period ending Oct. 8, 2006, following the Food and Drug Administration advisory to pull spinach from store shelves, according to figures compiled by The Fresh Look Marketing Group of Hoffman Estates, Ill., and Information Resources Inc. of Chicago. 

“Another example is the avian flu scare,” Hoenish says. “Company owners can go bankrupt and face criminal prosecution as well.”

Shaffer says the contract with his green bean processor has changed post-Sept.11.

“The processor has asked me to be more diligent with the crops,” Shaffer says.

The requests are mostly common sense, such as making sure no unauthorized pesticides drift onto the crop.

“We also need to know the truckers who ship the product to processing, to make sure no contamination occurs en route,” Shaffer says.

Start preparations locally

Plentiful resources are available locally and through government Web sites to prepare for the worst.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture published the “Pre-Harvest Security Guidelines and Checklist 2006” to help agricultural producers reduce farm-level security risks.

The guidelines offer tips on topics including awareness and planning, barriers and locks, inventory control, working with law enforcement, personnel training, and managing visitors.

The checklists are broken out into general security and production-specific sections, including crop security. Security resources and Web sites are listed in the back of the guide.

The guide is available online at the USDA site and also through county offices and service centers, says Jeremy Stump, Johanns’ senior adviser for international and homeland security affairs and biotechnology.

“The guidelines are common-sense things, like making sure they have their contacts in place with local law enforcement and land grant university resources, “ Stump says.

It’s important for growers to visit with local Farm Service Agency offices and Extension agents about biosecurity, he says. If growers witness suspicious or illegal behavior on their property, they need to contact local law enforcement immediately.

“We’re not asking individuals to break the bank, just use the guidelines to keep operations running as smoothly as possible,” Stump says.  “It’s important for growers to know that there is lots of infrastructure in place to deal with intentional attacks on our food supply.”

One of the many resources to support the food industry in case of an attack is the Counter-Terrorism Food Emergency Response Network, Stump says.

The network comprises state and federal laboratories that will analyze food samples in the event of a biological, chemical or radiological terrorist attack in the United States.

Other valuable resources

Preparation is the most important step. If growers suspect their crop has been contaminated, they can turn to a nationwide support network, says Steve Koike, University of California Cooperative Extension farm adviser for Monterey and Santa Cruz counties. That network starts with local Extension agents. These experts know local farms well and should be able to recognize when something is out of the ordinary, he says.

“I find that any kind of disease that I see that I’m not sure about—I’ll call the Extension service from Penn State to identify it,” Shaffer says.

If Extension agents want samples tested, they can send it to one of the laboratories within the National Plant Diagnostic Network.

The network of five regional centers—Great Plains, Northeastern, North Central, Southern and Western—was organized by the USDA and the Department of Homeland Security following the Sept. 11 attacks. It is designed to rapidly and accurately detect and report plant pests, whether accidentally or intentionally introduced, Hoenish of the Western Plant Diagnostic Network says.

The network teams with land-grant universities, state and county departments of agriculture and the USDA to maximize its response to possible contamination.

Koike agrees that bioterrorism is a threat that deserves increased attention. But he questions to what extent.

“In my opinion, the possibility of terrorist action is quite slim,” says Koike, also a diagnostic network member.  “But we still want to be ready.”

He says they’re also testing the network to diagnose natural agricultural issues, such as plant disease.

Shaffer says food produced in the United States is very safe—much safer than imported food. He suggests advertising to consumers the superior safety of U.S. versus foreign foods to promote product.

“If the consumer loses confidence in the product, that will really affect our bottom line,” he says.

Educational resources

Training and education on biosecurity is available from many organizations and universities on biosecurity.

UC Davis-based Western Plant Diagnostic Network representatives, for example, travel nationwide to offer hands-on workshops that teach growers and other first detectors how to identify and cope with insects and pathogens.

Carl Shaffer, president of the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau and owner of Carl T. Shaffer Farms in Mifflinville, Pa., says he keeps up with the latest pests and diseases by attending meetings and seminars that the Penn State Extension service offers in the winter.

The University of Tennessee in Knoxville; Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind.; Kansas State University in Manhattan; and Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa also are a few institutions that offer food security courses.

The USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service has created an infrastructure with all 50 states to engage in vulnerability assessments, says David Kaplan, director of emergency and domestic programs for the APHIS Plant Protection and Quarantine office.

The office works in accordance with the National Response Plan, the Plant Protection Act of 2000, the Agricultural Bioterrorism Protection Act of 2002, as well as Homeland Security Presidential Directives, Kaplan says.

“People need to look at their production systems,” he says.  “Are there areas that would be vulnerable to devious individuals?”

Internet Hotlinks:

USDA-Pre-Harvest Security Guidelines and Checklist 2006

National Plant Diagnostic Network

Western Plant Diagnostic Network

UDSA APHIS Plant Protection and Quarantine