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Beat them to table, colonel says to defeat ag terrorists

Finding ways to put meat on the table could help remove agriculture from the terrorist table, a U.S. Army colonel told participants at the International Conference on Agricultural Science and Technology meeting in Houston recently.

“Could we sell livestock for consumption rather than kill them (in the event of a deliberate introduction of a catastrophic foreign disease),” said Col. Gerald Parker, director of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center.

“That's the challenge for the scientific community and the only way to take this threat off the table.”

Parker referred to foot-and-mouth disease, a condition that has not existed in North America since 1929, but one that livestock experts say could easily be introduced to hooven animals and cause massive economic and food losses. Current technology calls for the slaughter of all animals either showing signs of or exposed to livestock with the disease.

Parker said researchers are looking for ways to use meat of such animals since the disease is not transmittable to humans. He said scientists also are studying antiviral medicines that could be given to exposed animals rather than having to slaughter them. But such technologies must come quickly to ward off the threat of a deliberate or accidental foot-and-mouth introduction.

“In the past, it was a dead-end career for a veterinary researcher to work on foot-and-mouth disease,” said Parker, himself a veterinarian.

“There are few researchers in the United States today who work on foreign animal disease. That is something that we must change. We need new talent in veterinarian science.”

But even that won't eliminate the threat of terrorism against U.S. or world agriculture production, he said.

“We all know the list of potential pathogens,” he said. “But what will the next threat be? We don't want to be surprised. We want to have the best technology in the tool bag.”

He urged representatives from all the participating nations at the conference to join together to find solutions. “We must, we must, we must work together internationally to find solutions,” Parker added.

Dr. Maureen McCarthy, homeland defense department director of science and technology, acknowledged that foot-and-mouth disease is receiving “much energy” at the federal level because it would be relatively easy to introduce and yet cause massive disruption of the food supply and economy.

She said the department is directing its efforts towards those areas where a terrorist action would most harm the “heart and soul” of the nation, and much of that, she added, pertains to agriculture production and the food supply.

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