Farmers, ranchers study security to protect against terrorists

December 28, 2001 The Associated Press
The employees at Para Livestock have been told not to hesitate if they see an unidentified vehicle approach the feedlot near Othello.

"You go straight to it to find out why it's there," said Michael Para, who keeps 5,000 head of cattle there.

While his Adams County feedlot isn't a likely target for terrorism, the Sept. 11 attacks have made him more cautious.

"You're looking over your shoulder. You're just more aware of any potential bad guy," he told The News Tribune of Tacoma. Para and others in agriculture are worried that terrorists might try to somehow harm domestic and international food production or scare consumers.

A national committee is evaluating efforts to protect agriculture against biological attack. The panel's work, requested by the U.S. Department of Agriculture long before Sept. 11, is expected to take a few more months.

Starting an animal disease epidemic wouldn't take much sophistication, said Robert Mead, state veterinarian for Washington. Methods could range from something as elaborate as a crop-dusting airplane or as simple as a jar of infected material.

Livestock isn't the only potential target. Food crops such as wheat are vulnerable to contamination that might prohibit their export, said R. James Cook, a Washington State University plant pathologist who is one of 12 members of the National Academy of Sciences committee studying the issue.

Some agricultural terror experts describe the risk as mostly economic.

"Agri-terror agents don't affect people, by and large," said Corrie Brown, a University of Georgia veterinary pathologist who has discussed the threat before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

But if animals get dangerously sick, they usually must be killed, and the fear of contagion disrupts international marketing and could ruin the U.S. economy, Brown said.

Nationally, agriculture accounts for $160 billion in exports and 17 percent of all jobs. Foot-and-mouth disease, if spread undetected, for example, could cause a $27 billion loss in the United States, she said.

The federal budget for 2001 earmarked $39.8 million for USDA efforts to defend against agricultural terrorism. In the fall, President Bush added another $45.2 million for agriculture as part of the national plan to bolster security.

A terrorist could also use the threat of contamination as a scare tactic. There aren't many serious animal diseases that make people sick. But among those that can, there are some frightening ones - such as mad-cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, that has been linked to a fatal human brain ailment called Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. Scientists suspect people may become ill by eating infected animals.

"What if someone announced they had put the brains of a cow into the hamburger supply as it was moving West?" Cook asked.

Mead has been working to develop Washington state's emergency response guidelines to contain the accidental spread of foreign animal diseases. He said the plan should also work for deliberately introduced maladies, but he is cautious.

"The ingenuity of terrorists might be beyond our ability to anticipate what they might do," he said.

In the meantime, Mead, Cook and others warn farmers to beware.

"If I had a dairy operation, I would be very watchful. I would evaluate my security. If I had a feedlot, I would evaluate my security," Cook said.

Para, a member of the Washington Beef Commission, has done that, as have others in the cattle business. Long gone are the days when Para ranch gates were left open or unlocked.

As a matter of routine, riders on horseback check cattle daily and isolate those that appear sick or injured. Para employs a consulting veterinarian and a nutritionist to keep the animals healthy.

"We are very much aware of the condition of the cattle and who has access to them," he said.

Para lives on the Adams County property, along with two employees, so he doesn't worry much about nighttime security.

In Western Washington, at the Wilcox Family Farm near Roy, a guard patrols at night, said Greg Rood, quality assurance manager. With annual sales of $120 million, the company is among the top three milk and egg producers in the Pacific Northwest.

"Contaminating milk and eggs on the premises would be very difficult for anybody on the outside," Rood said. "We have told our people to be very watchful."

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