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U.S. Remains Unprepared for Agricultural Disease Outbreaks

No matter what their cause, major agricultural disease outbreaks put the nation at risk.

The poultry farmers of Iowa could see it coming, almost like a storm on the horizon. Avian influenza struck Minnesota — the nation’s largest turkey producer — first, striking hardest where turkey production was the dominant industry. It then jumped to Missouri, then Arkansas, then north to Kansas and north again to South Dakota, defying the migration patterns of the wild birds suspected of carrying the virus, before striking Minnesota a second time. It sickened and killed both turkeys and chickens.

Iowa is the nation’s leading egg producer, with 60 million birds laying 15 billion eggs per year, or one out of every five produced in the United States. The state ranks ninth in the nation in turkey production.

In Iowa, avian influenza struck a turkey farm first, then a huge egg farm with more than 4 million layers. Before the outbreak subsided, 77 properties in Iowa were hit. Millions of birds were killed, either by the virus or in the attempt to keep it from spreading. Across the country, it had affected nearly 50 million birds in 21 states.

Is this what agricultural terrorism would look like in the United States? It might.

“The United States is underprepared for biological threats,” said the 2015 report from the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense. “Nation states and unaffiliated terrorists (via biological terrorism) and nature itself (via emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases) threaten us,” it continued. “While biological events may be inevitable, their level of impact on our country is not.”

Although the United States has not experienced an act of agroterrorism by foreign terrorists, this avian influenza event is not made up. It’s what happened when an avian influenza that is particularly harmful to birds, known as a highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI), struck the heartland in spring 2015. There are several different strains of HPAI, including the H7N9 strain that, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), has killed dozens of people and sickened hundreds in China since 2013.

The 2015 outbreak was not an act of terrorism, but an animal disease outbreak with natural causes. It was the worst animal disease event in U.S. history, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) Veterinary Services. However, small outbreaks of animal diseases — killing a few dozen or a few hundred animals — are common.

During the 2015 Iowa avian influenza outbreak, “every day you would wake up and say, it can’t get worse than this,” says Robin Pruisner, agriculture security coordinator for the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship and the state’s incident commander for the outbreak. “And day after day, week after week, it got worse.”

Diseases of plants and animals are a threat to national security, whether or not the outbreaks are caused by terrorists. Food safety policies that defend against accidental and natural disease outbreaks should also limit the harm done by a biological terrorist attack against agriculture.

A heightened awareness of the threat of bioterrorism and agroterrorism has been part of America’s general increased alertness about terrorism after the 9/11 attacks, and the anthrax attack that followed a few weeks later. In that anthrax attack, five people died and 17 were sickened when weaponized anthrax was sent in envelopes through the U.S. Postal Service.

In June 2017, President Trump signed the Securing our Agriculture and Food Act, which puts the Department of Homeland Security’s assistant secretary for health affairs in charge of coordinating efforts to prevent and respond to agroterrorism attacks. It’s one of several laws enacted since September 2001 to address bioterrorism in general and a handful of laws to address agroterrorism specifically.

In response to the signing of the act in June, Rep. David Young, R-Iowa, who introduced the bill to Congress, said, “Agroterrorism is a real threat, and this legislation takes the necessary and critical steps to protect America from high-risk events which pose serious threats to our food, across Iowa and the United States.”

The risks

Though there is general acknowledgment that a biological agroterror attack could harm the nation’s economy and food supply, as well as possibly cause human illness, the likelihood of an attack is not clear.

In 2002, “U.S. Navy SEALs found a list of pathogens and a schematic in an Afghanistan cave that al-Qaida planned to use to produce bioweapons. In addition to six human pathogens, 10 pathogens targeted food, six targeted livestock and poultry, and four targeted crops,” wrote former U.S. Sen. Tom Daschle and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Richard B. Myers in a 2016 U.S. News & World Report article.

This story has been repeated many times, in articles and by experts in agroterrorism, although a source for the information is not given. The validity of this vivid and chilling terrorist threat to American agriculture rests on the credibility of Daschle and Myers.

Another consideration is how easy it would be to attack that nation’s agriculture system with a disease organism.

“We tend to think of bioweapons in the human world, in warfare,” said William Karesh, executive vice president for health and policy for the nonprofit EcoHealth Alliance and adviser to the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense. “It’s a sophisticated process to take a naturally occurring organism and make it weaponizable. But some of these animal diseases are caused by viruses that can survive for months or years without having to do anything special to them.”

The consequences of an agroterror attack would be grave, Karesh said. It could be devastating to the economy, because agriculture makes up 5.5 percent of the country’s gross domestic product and employs 11 percent of Americans. It could cause food shortages and even starvation.

It could also harm human health. Bioweapons have been created from diseases shared by animals and human beings, such as anthrax, brucellosis, histoplasmosis, plague, Q fever, rabies and tularemia. The direct threat to human health and the association with bioweapons increases the fear associated with agroterrorism.

On the other hand, naturally occurring or accidentally caused animal disease outbreaks are so common that they are drained of some of their terror. Only the largest outbreaks make the national news. Some agroterrorism experts have said that this makes an attack less valuable to terrorists.

Animal disease response

The threat of even natural or accidental disease outbreaks is so serious that many diseases of animals and plants are mandatory to report at local, state, federal and international levels. The World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE), an intergovernmental organization with 180 member countries, collects animal disease data from around the globe.

Veterinarians who work with farm animals in the U.S. are trained, and reminded, to contact the USDA assistant district director (ADD) for their state or their state veterinarian’s office when they encounter any one of a long list of diseases, including anthrax, foot-and-mouth disease, and rabies, as well as lesser-known diseases like vesicular stomatitis.

USDA ADDs and state veterinarians are the people with top-of-mind knowledge of animal diseases, from how contagious they are among animals to how dangerous they are to humans to how to contain them. For emergency managers, they are people well worth getting to know before an outbreak.

“Foot-and-mouth disease is one of my biggest concerns,” said Ron Snyder, a consultant based in Brooklyn, Iowa, and a trainer who developed the DHS-certified curriculum for the AgTerror Emergency Responder Training program. Foot-and-mouth disease is highly contagious. Symptoms in cattle, hogs or sheep don’t show up until five to seven days after exposure, Snyder said, which is more than enough time for animals or equipment to be transported from coast to coast.

A 2001 outbreak of foot-and-mouth in the United Kingdom showed just how devastating this disease could be. Millions of animals were slaughtered to stop a disease that does not affect people and doesn’t kill adult animals, but destroys their economic value. The effort cost the equivalent of $10 billion, according to the BBC. The outbreak not only hurt farmers and stopped UK meat exports, but also caused a drop in tourism.

What makes responding to an animal disease outbreak so tricky, Snyder says, is that it brings together so many groups that don’t normally work together, including law enforcement, public health officials, medical personnel, veterinarians, agriculture officials, farmers and producers, and hazardous materials teams. “We can’t silo information,” he said.

Emergency management role

Pruisner, the Iowa agriculture security coordinator, said she works closely with the state’s county emergency managers and the state Homeland Security and Emergency Management Department. The big difference between responding to a natural or unintended disease outbreak and a criminal or agroterrorism attack is that in the latter, you need to preserve evidence for law enforcement. In both cases you will likely be involved in setting up quarantines and helping dispose of many animal carcasses.

“Emergency managers tell me that all emergencies are local, and if they need help, they will reach out,” she said.

But a disease outbreak is a regulatory matter, she added. If the disease is on the federal reporting list, and conditions warrant it, the response is going to come from the federal government. “I think this was hard for the locals to buy into because it is the opposite of how they handle things.”

Iowa had plans for dealing with a major animal disease outbreak, Pruisner said. It wasn’t enough. “The best-laid plans go awry. You can plan and exercise and you will still find yourself in uncharted territory.”

In Iowa, one place the plans went off course was in disposing of millions of poultry carcasses. The plan called for farmers to use one of several means of sanitary disposal: landfill, burial on site, composting or incineration.

But some landfills refused the carcasses, Pruisner said, either because they were already full or were concerned about spreading the disease to nearby farms. Not all farmers could bury the carcasses because, with a shallow water table, it risked contaminating local drinking water supplies. Few farmers chose incineration. (News reports say that there simply weren’t incinerators in the area.) So many farmers were composting and the area ran out of the wood chips, cornstalks and other carbon sources that were needed to mix with the carcasses.

Through the spring of that year, USDA teams were coming into the state for 28-day deployments. In animal health emergencies, the USDA depends on volunteer veterinarians who are trained ahead of time and become temporary federal employees when they are called into service.

“We had the red team, the indigo,” Pruisner said. “Each team had trained together and had their own way of doing things.” Some farmers dealt with several teams during the crisis, each with different procedures and a different bedside manner. “We needed a better transition and more consistency in the field.”

The crisis and legislation

Farmers complained. The egg and turkey producer associations complained. They said that state and federal authorities did not take action soon enough, that the instructions to farmers were confusing, and that the cleanup took too long. In news reports, the USDA said it would change things, particularly providing more consistent points of contact between farmers and the agency.

Pruisner said that in the future, the state will provide a liaison so that individual farmers can reach the same person throughout an emergency. It also put together a book describing procedures in the first few hours and days after avian influenza is detected on a farm.

But for Rep. Young, enough was enough. In his press release announcing the president’s signing the bill he introduced into law, he hints that the shortcomings of the avian influenza response inspired him to introduce the legislation that would become the Securing Our Agriculture and Food Act, which mandates that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) coordinate responses to agroterrorism.

The release said: “First introduced in 2016, and then again in January of this year, Congressman Young’s legislation addresses concerns brought to light after Iowa suffered the largest animal disease outbreak in state history, when the 2015 avian influenza outbreak wiped out millions of layer hens, turkeys and backyard flocks. Response efforts revealed problematic preparedness concerns and breaks in the federal government’s ability to communicate with stakeholders and react quickly to large-scale animal disease outbreaks. This disaster also raised concerns among farmers, producers and ag experts about whether our nation would be able to capably share information and respond to agroerrorism threats and attacks, ultimately an attack against our nation’s citizens.”

That may sound like Young set out to punish the USDA for its failure in the 2015 avian influenza outbreak by handing over the reins to DHS in the event of an agroterror attack, but, through a spokesman, Young said that isn’t so. Previous laws put the DHS assistant secretary for health affairs in charge of the response to other forms of bioterrorism. This law makes sure that agroterrorism is included. Sen. Pat Roberts, R.-Kan., one of the bill’s Senate sponsors, agrees that this was the goal.

Young said that DHS and the USDA must work together for the nation’s response to be effective.

Because it brings together so many government agencies and so many different types of expertise, responding to agroterrorism takes an exceptional level of coordination and communication. In the end, it means meeting the challenges of human nature as much as it means defeating a disease.

“At times,” Pruisner said. “I don’t have words for 2015.”