GAO urges agroterror coordination

Management problems among the Agriculture and DHS hamper their ability to respond quickly to disease outbreaks, GAO says.

Government Accountability Office report on agroterrorism

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State and federal planning and coordination to reduce risks from agroterrorism have improved considerably since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, but improving the speed of responses to possible disease outbreaks remains a challenge, according to a new Government Accountability Office report.

GAO personnel concluded that management problems among federal agencies, mainly the Agriculture and Homeland Security departments, reduce their ability to respond quickly. The agencies must improve information flow between both departments’ agricultural inspectors and accelerate the integration of their databases and information technology systems at the port level, the GAO report states.

DHS, Agriculture, the Health and Human Services Department, and the Environmental Protection Agency should also compile reports after exercises and emergencies and share them through the Homeland Security Information Network, GAO auditors wrote.

Other GAO recommendations include:

* Increasing the number of agricultural inspections and the number of area and regional emergency coordinators nationwide.

* Getting better input from stakeholders on national guidance for protection of agriculture and emergency response.

* Improving coordination and tracking of federally funded research initiatives against agroterrorism.

Generally, the report gave a thumbs up to federal agencies' efforts to deal with agroterrorism, such as vulnerability assessments of the agriculture infrastructure; development of plans and protocols; training exercises with state officials and first responders; creation of laboratory networks to diagnose animal, plant and human diseases; and the development of a national veterinary stockpile that will include vaccines against foreign animal diseases.

The problems are complex and there are significant challenges that inspectors must overcome. For example, the report said that Agriculture has to evaluate the costs and benefits of using rapid diagnostic tools at an outbreak site otherwise agency researchers might miss an opportunity to reduce the impact of agroterrorism.

“Without on-site diagnosis to help monitor neighboring herds, animals would likely be slaughtered based on proximity rather than confirmed infection, unnecessarily magnifying the impact of an attack,” the report states.

GAO's report states that several agencies, including Agriculture, DHS and HHS, generally concurred with the findings and recommendations and have already taken steps to share information and reports, among other issues.

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