Food supply's safety still in doubt $3.4B later

Tomatoes and cucumbers are seen for sale in a grocery store Feb. 16, 2010, in New York City. Getty Images

SAN FRANCISCO - One of the deepest fears sweeping a shattered nation following the Sept. 11 attacks was that terrorists might poison the country's food.

Hoping to ease people's anxieties about what they were eating, President George W. Bush vowed to draw a protective shield around the food supply and defend it from farm to fork.

An Associated Press analysis of the programs found that the government has spent at least $3.4 billion on food counter-terrorism in the last decade, but key programs have been bogged down in a huge, multi-headed bureaucracy. And with no single agency in charge, officials acknowledge it's impossible to measure whether orchards or feedlots are actually any safer.

On Tuesday, a Senate subcommittee will hold a hearing to examine a congressional watchdog's new report revealing federal setbacks in protecting cattle and crops since Sept. 11. Just days after the 10th anniversary of the attacks, lawmakers are demanding answers about potential food-related threats and reports that the government could have wasted money on languishing agriculture anti-terror programs.

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"The truth is, nobody's in charge," said John Hoffman, a former senior adviser for bio-surveillance and food defense at the Department of Homeland Security, who will testify at the hearing. "Our surveillance doesn't work yet, our intelligence doesn't work yet and we're not doing so well at targeting what comes across the border."

Top U.S. food defense authorities insist that the initiatives have made the food supply safer and say extensive investments have prepared the country to respond to emergencies. No terrorist group has threatened the food supply in the past decade, and the largest food poisonings have not arisen from foreign attacks, but from salmonella-tainted eggs produced on Iowa farms that sickened almost 2,000 people.

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Seeking to chart the government's advances, the AP interviewed dozens of current and former state and federal officials and analyzed spending and program records for major food defense initiatives, and found:

  • The fragmented system leaves no single agency accountable, at times slowing progress and blurring the lines of responsibility. Federal auditors found one Agriculture Department surveillance program to test for chemical, biological, and radiological agents was not working properly five years after its inception in part because agencies couldn't agree on who was in control.
  • Efforts to move an aging animal disease lab from an island near New York City have stalled after leading scientists found an accidental release of foot-and-mouth was likely to happen at the new facility in America's beef belt.
  • Congress is questioning whether $31 million the Department of Homeland Security spent to create a state-of-the-art database to monitor the food supply has accomplished anything because agencies are not using it to share information.
  • Despite the billions spent on food defense, many of the changes the government put into place are recommendations that the private sector isn't required to carry out. As a result, it's difficult to track successes and failures, and the system's accomplishments are largely hidden from public view.

"Everything that has been done to date on food defense in the private sector has all been voluntary," said LeeAnne Jackson, the Food and Drug Administration's health science policy advisor. "We can't go out and ask them what they have done, because they're not obliged to tell us, so we don't have a good metric to measure what's been done."

The food defense effort shifted into high gear in 2004 when Mr. Bush directed the government to create new systems to guard against terrorist attacks. Agencies got money to assess risks, contain foreign disease outbreaks and help farms and food processing plants develop protection programs.

The newly established Department of Homeland Security, which was charged with sharing information about federal food defense plans, also distributed grants among agencies, contractors and universities. During the past nine years, it spent $467 million on food-related research alone.

A $6 million counter-terrorism network headquartered in Iowa that helps veterinarians stop viruses from spreading between herds is considered one of the successes. Another is a program that gave California dairymen hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy high-tech locks for their milking barns.

The department also spent $550 million to run its Office of Health Affairs, which coordinates bio-surveillance across federal agencies. In fiscal year 2008, that office set out to build a new database where food, agriculture, disease and environmental agencies could view each other's surveillance information in real time.

But Jeff Runge, DHS's former chief medical officer, said the other agencies did not want to hand over their data, and turf battles delayed the government's progress in pinpointing a culprit as hundreds of people fell ill during a nationwide salmonella outbreak tied to peppers that summer.

"FDA was going on its own track, DHS was on its track, and no one was talking to each other," said David Acheson, who was then FDA's assistant commissioner and is now a food industry consultant.

In June, Democratic Rep. Bill Pascrell of New Jersey introduced a bill that would eliminate the database. The Republican-led House Appropriations Committee also has questioned what Homeland Security has accomplished after spending $31 million running the program.

"It just didn't work," said Runge, who oversaw the database. "Now al Qaeda is headed by a physician who has expressed interest in biological attacks, and I don't think we are putting enough brain cycles on this issue."

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