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WASHINGTON - The United States is vulnerable to terrorism aimed at farms that produce the nation's food, according to a new report by the National Research Council, considered to be one of the most comprehensive reviews of farm security to date.
"It's not a matter of 'if.' It's a matter of 'when,'" said R. James Cook, a council member from Washington State University. "While there may be a very low probability now, what about in 20 years?"
The council report, which pinpoints weaknesses in the U.S. plan of defense against bioterrorism, suggests that an attack on food production could hurt public confidence in the food supply and disrupt the economy, costing millions if not billions of dollars.
Since last year, scientists have considered ways terrorists could spirit diseases across U.S. borders and infect cattle with mad cow disease, contaminate grain fields or spread anthrax. Many pathogens are easily dispersed, such as foot-and-mouth disease, an illness that doesn't harm humans but can quickly sicken herds of pigs and cattle.
The panel urged U.S. officials to improve their communication with intelligence agencies, universities and farm groups to help the public cope with food and farm security threats. It also suggested the government strengthen its border inspections by adding new equipment to detect harmful bacteria and diseases.
In addition, the council is recommending that the government immediately:
-- Increase its efforts to understand plant and animal diseases and how they spread.
-- Establish a network of laboratories that would respond to, detect and diagnose diseases.
-- Form a nationwide system to manage and collect bioterrorism information.
"Many of these efforts identified in the NAS report are already under way," Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman said in a written statement.
Although Veneman's department commissioned the report, it had sought to withhold its release, fearing it could be used as a resource for terrorists planning to attack the nation's food supply, according to the Associated Press. Some portions of the report were removed as a result.