Bioterrorism Precautions

Like Generals always fighting the last war, it is to be expected that people will be obsessed with airline security after the outrage of September 11, 2001. But there is no particular reason to believe that the next terrorist strike will involve airplanes. Indeed, since the rules of guerrilla warfare, of which terrorism is a particularly onerous kind, dictate the use of constant surprise, it is logical to think the next strike in the terrorism war will be in some other facet of our economy. Just possibly our food supply.

Dr. Charles Beard, Vice President of Research and Technology for the U.S. Poultry & Egg Association, issued a statement that pointed out the real risks of bioterrorism in the poultry industry. Acknowledging that these types of risks are old news, he pointed out that those knowledgeable on these subjects have frequently delivered their warnings sotto voce for fear of giving terrorists ideas.

Today, that notion seems almost quaint, and so Dr. Beard spoke out. He referenced a recent U.S. Department of Agriculture Report on the subject of foreign animal disease. The report was issued in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on September 11th. The gist of the report was that we need increased disease surveillance to rapidly detect and identify any diseases that might appear in our animals.

Nobody sees any great advantage in talking much about the details. But everyone in the field seems to agree that a not-particularly-sophisticated bioterrorist could easily introduce diseases into our animal stock.

The best defense against this threat is a biosecurity program. Speaking of poultry, Dr. Beard explains:

When properly done, bio-security measures may not prevent the attack but will help confine any disease introductions to the premise where they were introduced. Hopefully, that will allow for the proper identification and control/eradication of the disease before it can spread beyond that site into the rest of the complex. While everyone involved in the industry must participate in such a tightening of bio-security, growers and farm managers have the most significant roles. Poultry houses need to be located behind locked gates and fences, house doors should be locked, feed delivery drivers should not enter the houses and neither should anyone else if they don’t have a need to be in there. That includes neighbors, friends, and relatives.

Company representatives, equipment repairmen and others who go from farm to farm should clean up, change or decontaminate footwear and wear clean, disposable outer clothing. A disinfectant footbath at every housedoor that is kept fresh and clean is a good idea.

If the industry can keep any disease introductions – be they accidental or malicious – confined to the initial premise, we can minimize bioterrorism effects against poultry. If we don’t do that, we could have a catastrophe on our hands. This is one place where we are not helpless.

Only we can fix this lax biosecurity problem; not the USDA and not the Department of Defense. Only the industry players who make the business of poultry production happen can take the next step.

Dr. Beard is, of course, correct that it is only the producers of animal products that can solve these problems and take these precautions.

However, the economics of the business tend to drive out safety measures in commodity industries unless buyers insist upon them. This dynamic tends to drive operations to a “lowest common denominator” on extra expenses. Now although the specifics Dr. Beard suggests – footbaths, fences and whatnot – might not be particularly expensive, the development and maintenance of an overall anti-bioterrorism plan will cost money. Based on current industry practices, this is money a good producer will not recoup.

So the development of these anti-bioterrorism plans is unlikely to happen unless buyers take it as seriously as they do food safety problems. Just as many buyers won’t consider buying from food suppliers who haven’t been pre-qualified on food safety, reviewing HACCP plans and the like, buyers need to establish that the existence of a comprehensive anti-bioterrorism program is a part of their prequalification program for meat suppliers.

Some buyers will object – this is not their battle. After all, whereas HACCP directly affects food safety, the introduction of foreign animal diseases may not. Many of these diseases have no direct effect on food safety; some diseases only affect the animals themselves.

But some do affect food safety and, in any case, all the talk about America being united to fight terrorism only means something if it means we are prepared to go beyond what our specific obligations are. The bottom line is that buyers have the power to make sure producers are protecting their animals against bioterrorism – it is a moral imperative that buyers use this power to safeguard our country against this threat.