WASHINGTON – The Department of Homeland Security will take the lead in fighting agro-terrorism and ensuring a safe food supply by providing a better-coordinated response between agencies in the event of an outbreak, officials say.

Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts authored the bill that changed top-line responsibility for preventing or mitigating attacks on the nation’s food supply, although the DHS and The Department of Agriculture will continue to coordinate their efforts; President Donald Trump signed it into law Friday.

Prior to the law, coordination between the Department of Agriculture and DHS was lacking.

A March 2017 report issued by the USDA Office of the Inspector General determined that the USDA’s agro-terrorism plans and exercises were inadequate and unavailable for inspection and the agency was unprepared to respond in the event of an attack on the food supply. The USDA has adopted 11 of the OIG’s 14 recommendations to date. Those not yet implemented include getting a formal opinion on preparedness from the USDA general counsel, formulating a written process for meeting homeland security rules and obtaining evidence of compliance from agencies.

On Jan. 30, 2005, President George W. Bush released Homeland Security Presidential Directive—9, which called for improved early warning systems and prioritization of key departments for food supply protection. The Roberts law will push DHS and the USDA to uphold this directive.

“This new law a good thing, and will bring to bear all of the resources that the government has from the first-response capability to traffic control to assisting local agencies,” said former USDA Administrator Bobby Acord. “It will require greater coordination between DHS and the USDA. The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service is still going to remain the responding agency with the expertise and the infrastructure to be able to deal with an outbreak, but this will bring greater coordination in the event of one. Nobody can imagine what it’s going to take to respond to a foot-and-mouth disease outbreak. The impact on trade would be unbelievable.”

Agroterrorism is defined as the “deliberate introduction of an animal or plant disease for the purpose of generating fear, causing economic loss, or undermining social stability,” according to a recent Congressional Research Service report.

“Animal, plant and human health are inextricably linked, but agriculture, food and emergency response sectors do not traditionally coordinate and communicate,” said DHS spokesman David Lapan. “This coordination is critical to ensure swift and effective responses to an emergency in the nation’s agriculture or food system.”

The new law comes as the DHS is constructing a 574,000 square foot, $1.25 billion biocontainment laboratory for National Bio and Agro-Defense at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas. The labs, set to be operational by 2022, will study diseases that “threaten the animal agriculture industry and public health” and will “strengthen our nation’s ability to conduct research, develop vaccines, diagnose emerging diseases and train veterinarians,” according to DHS.

Currently, the NBAF research facility on Plum Island, NY, built in 1950s, is handling agro-defense preparedness and is capable of handling hoof and mouth disease and other bio agents.

The Kansas site was chosen from among 17 proposed locations. Kansas State University officials said its infectious disease and biosecurity research facilities were key factors in the DHS decision. USDA scientists at the Center for Grain and Animal Health Research are also collaborating with KSU scientists on research, Ron Trewyn, the university’s liaison to the new facility, said.

The agro-defense facility can handle bio safety level 4 infectious diseases—meaning it will have the capability to work with the most dangerous bio-agents. Ebola is a bio safety level 4 agent. “When you are working with that, you are in a room and wear a space suit,” said Stephen Higgs of the KSU Biosecurity Research Institute. “NBAF will be the only facility in the country with the capability to work with livestock at the level 4 level.”

It also is expected to add 40 businesses and 350 jobs and generate an economic return of $3.5 billion to Manhattan in its first 20 years.

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