IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

US food anti-terror plans costly

One of the deepest fears sweeping the United States following the Sept. 11 attacks was that terrorists might poison the country's food.
/ Source: The Associated Press

One of the deepest fears sweeping the United States following the Sept. 11 attacks was that terrorists might poison the country's food.

Hoping to ease people's anxieties about what they were eating, President George W. Bush vowed to draw a protective shield around the food supply and defend it from farm to fork.

An Associated Press analysis of the programs found that the government has spent at least $3.4 billion on food counter-terrorism in the last decade, but key programs have been bogged down in a huge, multi-headed bureaucracy. And with no single agency in charge, officials acknowledge it's impossible to measure whether orchards or feedlots are actually any safer.

On Tuesday, a Senate subcommittee held a hearing to examine a congressional watchdog's new report revealing federal setbacks in protecting cattle and crops since Sept. 11. Just days after the 10th anniversary of the attacks, lawmakers demanded answers about potential food-related threats and reports that the government may have wasted money on languishing agriculture anti-terror programs.

"We may be blindsided by an intentional food-based attack on this nation sometime soon," John Hoffman, a former Department of Homeland Security senior adviser, testified at the hearing. "The unfortunate truth is that we, as a nation, lack effective surveillance ... At present, our primary detection capability is the emergency room."

Top U.S. food defense authorities insist that the initiatives have made the food supply safer and say extensive investments have prepared the country to respond to emergencies. No terrorist group has threatened the food supply in the past decade, and the largest food poisonings have not arisen from foreign attacks but from salmonella-tainted eggs produced on Iowa farms that sickened almost 2,000 people.

Seeking to chart the government's advances, the AP interviewed dozens of current and former state and federal officials and analyzed spending and program records for major food defense initiatives, and found:

— The fragmented system leaves no single agency accountable, at times slowing progress and blurring the lines of responsibility. Federal auditors found one Agriculture Department surveillance program to test for chemical, biological, and radiological agents was not working properly five years after its inception in part because agencies couldn't agree on who was in control.

— Bureaucratic delays and funding concerns have slowed efforts to move an aging animal disease lab from an island near New York City. A report by leading scientists also found an accidental release of foot-and-mouth was likely to happen at the new facility in America's beef belt.

— Congress is questioning whether $31 million the Department of Homeland Security spent to create a state-of-the-art data integration center to monitor biological threats to food and other arenas has accomplished anything because agencies are not using it to share information.

The food defense effort shifted into high gear in 2004 when Bush directed the government to create new systems to guard against terrorist attacks. Agencies got money to assess risks, contain foreign disease outbreaks and help farms and food processing plants develop protection programs.

The newly established Department of Homeland Security, which was charged with sharing information about federal food defense plans, also distributed grants among agencies, contractors and universities and set up councils of private industry and local officials to help guide its policies. During the past nine years, it spent $467 million on food-related research alone.

A $6 million counter-terrorism network headquartered in Iowa that helps veterinarians stop viruses from spreading between herds is considered one of the successes. Another is a program that gave California dairymen hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy high-tech locks for their milking barns.

The department also spent $550 million to run its Office of Health Affairs, which coordinates responses to biological events across federal agencies. In fiscal year 2008, that office set out to build a new data integration center where food, agriculture, disease and environmental officials could see each other's surveillance information in real time.

But Jeff Runge, DHS's former chief medical officer, said the other agencies did not want to hand over their data, and turf battles delayed the government's progress in pinpointing a culprit as hundreds of people fell ill during a nationwide salmonella outbreak tied to peppers that summer.

In June, Democratic Rep. Bill Pascrell introduced a bill that would eliminate the data center. The Republican-led House Appropriations Committee also has questioned what Homeland Security has accomplished after spending $31 million running the program.

"It just didn't work," said Runge, who oversaw the center. "Now al-Qaida is headed by a physician who has expressed interest in biological attacks, and I don't think we are putting enough brain cells on this issue."

The department is working to integrate data across federal agencies, and is trying to enhance the center's effectiveness by reviewing the "challenges and opportunities of integrated bio-surveillance," a DHS official said.

Sen. Daniel Akaka convened Tuesday's hearing after requesting a new Government Accountability Office report, which that found there was no coordinated effort to oversee the government's progress on food defense.

"The implication, of course, is that it puts the country at risk if we do not know what agencies are doing," the GAO's director of natural resources and environment, Lisa Shames, told the Senate Homeland Security subcommittee.

National Security Staff has agreed to review the government's food defense work, she said.

FDA has spent $1.3 billion on food defense programs since 2005, the most recent year available, said spokeswoman Patricia El-Hinnawy. The USDA said it has spent $1.64 billion on food defense since 2003.

One top priority was setting up an animal identification system to track infected livestock. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack recently proposed a new system that would work whether animals were infected by accident or by terrorists.

Five years after its creation, the Food Emergency Response Network has not set up a targeted surveillance program to test for chemical, biological, and radiological agents, and USDA and FDA still can't agree on who runs it, USDA's Office of Inspector General found.

Protecting the food supply remains a top priority, and USDA continues working to advance its efforts, said Sheryl Maddux, deputy director of its Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Coordination.

That's where upgrading America's primary animal disease laboratory comes in, federal officials say. The facility, which does crucial research on foot-and-mouth disease, is currently housed on a tiny island 100 miles (160 kilometers) east of New York City.

DHS spent $233 million running the lab in the past few years and plans to move the operations to Manhattan, Kansas, by 2018.

But a National Research Council report issued last year cited safety concerns with the Kansas location, including a 70 percent chance that dangerous pathogens could be released close to urban populations and cattle yards over the project's 50-year life.

DHS officials have said the lab will be safe, and say the report failed to consider safety measures that will be added during construction.


Follow Garance Burke on Twitter at .