Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns recognizes the resilience and effectiveness of the U.S. food industry, but warns that Americans must not take the safety of their food for granted.
Johanns delivered the keynote address for the second International Symposium on Agroterrorism, which drew about 1,000 delegates from 21 countries, telling his audience what the government is doing to ensure a safe food supply.
"Agricultural goods pass quickly from one nation to another nation, from state to state," Johanns said. "But diseases and pathogens can travel just as quickly and as easily as trade, and they have no respect for borders."
The recent E. coli outbreak in spinach demonstrates some of the challenges of tracing food-borne illness, Johanns says. Although USDA does not believe that an intentional act triggered the E. coli outbreak, Johanns points to it as an example of how much damage an attack on the U.S. food supply could do.
Although there is no "specific or current threat" to the agriculture or food sectors in the U.S. at this time, Johanns says that preparation remains important.
"We know that there are individuals who want to harm us, and we are aware there are people with the knowledge and the capability of sabotaging our food supply," Johanns says. "And so you see we have no choice, we must be prepared."
Johanns goes on to detail some current government actions aimed at protecting the U.S. food supply from both agroterror and non-intentional outbreaks. He mentions the USDA plan to identify and tag every livestock animal by 2009 in order to better monitor and trace disease outbreaks, and says that the U.S. is "taking the lead on global efforts to combat avian influenza," committing $20 million to battle avian flu worldwide.
Other developing programs include an automated inspection system of imported agricultural products in high-risk cargo, an offshore pest information system, and work on diagnostic tests for livestock for more accurate and timely information.
In the same week that Creekstone Farms issued a statement attacking USDA's opposition to voluntary private BSE testing, Johanns says "We are absolutely committed to listen to the private sector, and we are committed to opening our imagination and innovation to protect our food and our ag system."