According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (an agency of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services), the food and agriculture sector of the nation’s economy continues to be an attractive terrorist target – primarily because of its potential for an attack that not only would cause panic but also hurt the economy and endanger public health throughout the United States.

Today, the possibility of terrorist attacks against the nation’s agricultural and food industries remains a continuing concern in the overall effort to bolster U.S. homeland security in general. Contamination of the nation’s food supply also poses a major danger that has prompted homeland security experts to devise methodologies aimed at assessing risk to this specific sector of the nation’s critical infrastructure. One focus in particular has been the food-service systems involving U.S. schools.

Homeland Security Presidential Directive HSPD-9, issued on 30 January 2004, established a national policy to defend the nation’s agriculture and food systems against terrorist attacks, major weather disasters, and other emergencies. In accordance with this directive, a vulnerability assessment focused on the USDA’s National School Lunch Program – which has its roots in the Great Depression of the 1930s but has been expanded and updated several times since – was carried out. That assessment: (a) resulted in theentification of several potential security concerns; and (b) led to the development and implementation of the mitigation strategies needed to help keep the U.S. food supply safe from terrorism. The Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) later published A Biosecurity Checklist for School Foodservice Programs: Developing a Biosecurity Management Plan (available on LLIS.gov), that provides guidelines and suggestions on how to: (a) form a school food-service biosecurity management team; and (b) use the checklist to properly prioritize the measures recommended to strengthen biosecurity.

A Seven-Step Priority List to Meet a Still Growing Threat In an effort to mitigate bioterrorism in schools, an effective biosecurity management plan should describe strategies for preventing threats, such as product tampering and food contamination. In addition, if a bioterrorism incident does occur, thorough plans would also indicate the appropriate response actions that should be taken by key personnel. Although schools are neither required nor mandated by federal law to develop a food-service biosecurity management plan, the FNS strongly urges schools to develop such plans by adhering to the following steps (listed in the Biosecurity Checklist mentioned above):

1. Establish a school food-service biosecurity management team;

2. Establish a checklist with the “prioritized levels” of measurements needed;

3. Add the security measures unique to each school;

4. Determine which security measures will be part of the plan;

5. Assign tasks and develop a schedule of target dates for each task;

6. Track the progress made; and

7. Continue to maintain and update the biosecurity plan.

The National School Lunch Program, though, is only a small segment of the food sector of the U.S. economy. In 2009, the Society for Risk Analysis (SRA) conducted a risk analysis on the United States as a whole and reported its findings in Risk Analysis of Chemical, Biological, or Radionuclear Threats: Implications for Food Security (also available on LLIS.gov). At that time, the probability of “an event leading to 5,000 casualties (fatalities and injuries)” was estimated to be “between 0.1 and 0.3.” Although the likelihood of a chemical, biological, radiological, and/or nuclear (CBRN) event is low, if a bioterrorist attack does in fact occur, according to the SRA, “the probability that it involves CBRN agents increases with the number of casualties” that the terrorists want to inflict.

Supporting-data models and statistics from the SRA’s risk analysis also predict, though, that by the year 2025 attacks leading to 5,000 casualties or more could potentially occur every 20 months or so, and possibly more frequently, in both the public sector and the nation’s private-sector food industry.

In short, protecting the U.S. agriculture and food infrastructure and resources is an important responsibility shared by federal, state, and local governments as well as the private industries involved. A bioterrorist attack could have a devastating impact on the nation’s public health and the U.S. economy. Proper planning, however – whether for private industry, state or local jurisdictions, or the nation as a whole – could not only help ensure a speedier response and recovery but also mitigate the worst consequences of such an attack.

For additional information and other biosecurity and food safety documents, log into LLIS.gov at www.llis.dhs.gov.

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Sophia Paros

Sophia Paros, a contractor with SAIC, serves as the operations lead for Lessons Learned Information Sharing (LLIS.gov), the DHS/FEMA (Department of Homeland Security/Federal Emergency Management Agency) national online network of lessons learned, best practices, and innovative ideas for the nation’s homeland-security and emergency management communities. Paros has received a dual bachelor’s degree in Computer Information Systems and Business from the College of Notre Dame of Maryland, and is currently working on an M.S. in Information Assurance from The George Washington University.

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