June 2013
From the State Vet's Office

Don’t Let Your Guard Down On Agro-Terrorism

How many times have we heard or even said that the events of September 11, 2001, forever changed the world as we knew it? Or was it that the world had already changed and the events of 9-11 were just tangible evidence that the world had already changed? Either way, we became acutely aware that there are people in the world who hate the United States and are willing to commit terrorist acts here on our own soil. I suppose that other than a few isolated incidences such as the tennis shoe bomber and the underwear bomber, and a few thwarted attempts to commit terrorist attacks, we may have become a little complacent in the area of vigilance. We often tend to focus on whatever takes up the most time on the evening news or the wall-to-wall, 24-hour-a-day news networks. And for the most part, for the past 10 or so years, that has not been terrorism - until April 15, 2013. On that day, two brothers used homemade bombs to kill three people and injure more than 170 (according to cnn.com). And, as we have learned, the goal of terrorists is to disrupt our daily routines. The casualties are not necessarily their main objectives. I figure, if you can completely shut down a city the size of Boston, you have pretty much disrupted our routine.

In September of 1982, seven people were killed by taking what they thought to be Extra- Strength Tylenol that turned out to be cyanide. I am not sure what the motivation was, but that act had a permanent effect on how over-the-counter medication is sold. Now we have double and even triple tamper-proof packaging. Certainly deeds such as that, 9-11 and the Boston Marathon bombing, have resulted in a change in how we conduct day-to-day life. I hope the Boston Marathon bombings serve to remind us to not let our guard down when we see something unusual and that includes in our farming and animal agriculture activities. I am fairly sure, the farther we drifted from 9-11, an unattended backpack in a crowd of people was nearly of as much concern as it would have been 8 or 10 years ago.

Therefore, I thought it might be appropriate to take this opportunity to remind all of us that agriculture is still considered to be a "soft target" for terrorists. Once in a great while, I hear someone say we shouldn’t write or talk about agro-terrorism because it reminds the potential perpetrators that we are indeed a soft target. That kind of reminds me of a quote from the movie about Johnny Cash, "Walk the Line." Once Johnny Cash was performing at Folsom Prison and the warden asked Johnny not to sing anything that might remind the prisoners they are, in fact, in prison. Johnny looked at the warden and simply asked, "Do you think they forgot?" It’s the same with terrorists. They are not likely looking at the Cooperative Farming News to get ideas concerning what segments of our society to attack. In fact, it has been broadly published, when Al Qaida computers and documents were found in the Afghanistan caves after the war began, agro-terrorism was very much on the minds of the terrorists. So I would ask the rhetorical question, "Do you think they forgot?" I seriously doubt it.

As I said earlier, terrorists’ main goal is to disrupt society. Let me just say that any serious attack on agriculture is a threat to society as a whole. I don’t remember who I heard say, "If there is no agriculture, there is no culture," but it certainly is a true statement. I can do without a television, the Internet, college football and even fishing, but I don’t believe I can go very long without eating. And while I cannot remember specific details, I don’t believe many people were purchasing Extra-Strength Tylenol or most other over-the-counter drugs back in 1982, and that was because of seven deaths. If our food supply were to be the point of a terrorist attack, even if only a small segment were involved, it would dramatically, negatively affect our whole society.

So how are we supposed to remain vigilant? Very simply: pay attention to things that just do not look or seem right. The soldiers conducting convoy missions in Iraq and Afghanistan are trained to look for something that doesn’t seem right, something that doesn’t fit in, something that wasn’t there yesterday. My advice is not much different for agriculture. Pay attention to unfamiliar vehicles that may spend time in the area. If a strange vehicle is parked at your chicken houses or pasture, get a tag number and report it. Be very cautious of visitors you allow onto your farm and keep a visitor log for those who do enter and leave your farm. Use locks and other barriers to limit access to your flocks or herds.

The way animals move here in the United States makes it imperative we recognize and respond to a foreign animal disease as soon as possible. A foreign animal disease is a weapon terrorists might use to disrupt animal agriculture. However, it is also likely a foreign animal disease could be introduced accidentally. Either way, it is critical you report any large die-offs or diseases affecting a large number of the herd. Pay especially close attention to animals with blisters in their mouths or large numbers that become lame or have neurological signs. Report any disease situation that is out of the ordinary to your veterinarian or to my office (334-240-7253). I have often said that if you play the odds, it will not be a foreign animal disease and there will be very minimal disruption to your operation. My concern is that early cases of a foreign animal disease will be shrugged off and it will have spread significantly before we can diagnose it and begin to respond. You, who are the producers involved in animal agriculture, are the "boots on the ground" and our first line of defense when it comes to foreign animal diseases or agro-terrorism. We at the Alabama Department of Agriculture have had exercises with the FBI and local and state law enforcement authorities, but it remains that you, the producer, are the most important piece of the puzzle in stopping agro-terrorism.

I believe, because of what happened at the Boston Marathon, I will likely be more aware of my surroundings the next time I attend a football game or go to some event where there are a lot of people. I would say, because of that event, I would likely keep my eyes open for an unattended package or backpack. I hope what happened in Boston serves to remind us that there are still those, foreign and domestic, who do not like us or what the United States stands for. In that same line of thinking, please do not let your guard down when it comes to agro-terrorism. Protecting the food supply is all of our responsibility.

Dr. Tony Frazier is the State Veterinarian for Alabama.