The thought that America's food supply infrastructure could be disrupted has plenty of state and federal officials seeking ways to protect against attacks.

Getting food from farms to dinner tables involves a complex chain of events that must happen in harmony, and links in that chain may fall under federal, state or local jurisdiction.

State agriculture departments bear much of the responsibility for safeguarding agricultural resources against acts of agroterrorism. Unlike bio-terrorism, which is aimed at killing or sickening people, agroterrorism is an economic attack that uses plants or pathogens to disrupt agricultural production.

The Illinois Department of Agriculture (IDOA) is developing an enterprise GIS strategy to better use state agricultural data to coordinate a response to an agroterrorism attack.

"Through its various regulatory and promotional activities, IDOA has a statutory responsibility to oversee the state's agricultural resources, as well as general business and industry sectors that impact consumers," said Jim Kunkle, IDOA emergency program manager. "IDOA has direct interaction with everything from gas pumps to grain elevators to pesticide applicators. IDOA's goal is to become the primary custodian or steward of GIS data relating to agriculture and share the data with other agencies or partners."

New GIS

The IDOA is using a $165,000 Department of Homeland Security (DHS) grant obtained by the Illinois Terrorism Task Force to develop the new enterprise GIS strategy. The work builds on a 2003 project in Clinton County that used GIS to plot agricultural assets such as livestock, grain elevators, food processing facilities and companies that specialize in transporting agricultural produce.

"We installed the pilot project in the county with a $22,000 grant from DHS," said Chris Herbert, communications manager of the IDOA. "Every agricultural asset was plotted. The results were so successful that through another grant, we are expanding the project throughout the entire state."

The IDOA's GIS strategy will be developed in two phases. Phase one, the Animal Disease/Emergency Response Project, will collect information and develop a strategic plan focused on animal health. Phase two will deploy software tools to track animals and other agricultural assets to better prevent or respond to an agricultural emergency.

Phase one concluded in July 2005, and phase two is slated to launch afterward.

"In addition to being a powerful homeland security tool, GIS will help IDOA improve the quality and efficiency of its services, and support such activities as critical decision-making, field staff deployment and environmental impact studies," Kunkle said.

"Phase two has not yet begun, but preliminary expectations are that the GIS tool will incorporate customized spatial toolsets within a standard GIS user interface, ArcGIS," he continued. "In addition, the tool will include predictive spatial modeling capabilities to assist animal health officials with both strategic planning and prevention, and tactical or response efforts related to a foreign animal disease outbreak."

Kunkle said foreign animal diseases -- such as foot-and-mouth disease, classical swine fever, bovine spongiform encephalopathy or Nipah virus -- would be devastating to U.S. livestock and the economy.

"The foot-and-mouth outbreak in the United Kingdom in 2001 resulted in the slaughter of millions of livestock at a cost of several billion dollars, and this was an accidental entry," he explained. "If the disease was intentionally introduced, it could potentially be much more widespread. Given that the livestock industry in the United States is much larger and animals move across the country at a high rate, the resulting economic loss would be huge."

In responding to such an outbreak in Illinois, the IDOA's plans include stopping all livestock movement and controlling all movement within a 3- to 6-mile radius of the infected premises, Kunkle said.

"Knowing the exact location of all susceptible animals in that area is paramount to stopping the spread," he said, noting that the IDOA would also need to know the exact location of key infrastructure such as roads, waterways, water tables, feed facilities, landfills and veterinary clinics.

Furthermore, the IDOA must be able to communicate with related industries that may be affected by the outbreak or will participate in the response.

"GIS would play a support role by providing exact locations of key areas such as livestock premises, agri-facilities and the infrastructure, such as roads, topography, water tables and waterways," Kunkle explained. "The system will also be used to track resources needed in a response and will eventually track livestock movement."

Deadly Threat

Agroterrorist attacks have occurred in the past, with detrimental results. Most occurred during World Wars I and II, but a contemporary small-scale case involved salmonella in a salad bar in Oregon.

Agroterrorism is a present danger, according to Joseph Reardon, food administrator of the Food and Drug Protection Division of the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

"The threat of agroterrorism can be just as potent a weapon as the actual attack," Reardon said on May 25, 2005, before the House Committee on Homeland Security, Subcommittee on Intelligence, Information Sharing and Terrorism Risk Assessment.

In 1989, a terrorist group phoned in such a threat in to the U.S. Embassy in Chile, claiming to have contaminated grapes en route to the United States with cyanide. Though the Food and Drug Administration only found three grapes to be contaminated on a dock in Philadelphia, supermarkets throughout the country pulled all Chilean fruit. That one act resulted in a $200 million revenue loss.

There is a big responsibility at the state level, Reardon noted.

"Unique conditions exist in each state that provide an opportunity for development of innovative preparedness, mitigation and response initiatives," he testified. "Success will depend on identifying and enhancing these programs at the state level. States have the relationships and share the geographical space necessary to develop the required programs to safeguard our food industries. We have developed a culture of food safety since 1906 with the enactment of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. We have yet to develop a food defense culture."

State-level preparedness may hold the key to protecting our agricultural future. According to the Association of Food and Drug Officials, more than 80 percent of the food safety and security activities in the United States are performed at state or local levels.

Jennifer Stong  |  Contributing Writer