2012 PRESS RELEASES
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May 10, 2012
VIRGINIA AGROTERRORISM CONFERENCE ASKS AND ANSWERS THE QUESTION, WHAT WOULD VIRGINIA DO IN THE EVENT OF AN INTENTIONAL INTRODUCTION OF FOOT AND MOUTH DISEASE?
Contact: Elaine J. Lidholm, 804.786.7686
For the fourth year in a row, participants at the Virginia Agroterrorism Conference considered how Virginia would respond in the event of a terrorism strike against any form of agriculture. They considered not only the food supply, but also food animals, livestock markets, food processing facilities, transportation and veterinary medicine.
For the first time, the conference featured a mock exercise on Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD). It started with an imagined scenario: a local veterinarian on a routine call noticed suspicious lesions on the mouths and feet of cattle recently brought in from another state. Panelists from Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS), the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) reported on what their role would be at this initial phase. As the scene progressed, more and more people became involved until Megan Samford, the Emergency Services Manager at VDACS, revealed a surprising twist. The son-in-law of the farmer was home between deployments with the U.S. Army in the Middle East and was at odds with the family. He had made threatening remarks to his father-in-law, and further investigation revealed he was not in good standing with the military.
The plot thickened. With questions and comments from the audience, the panelists delved deeper into the investigation, while also quarantining the farm and taking other precautions to prevent the spread of FMD should laboratory results confirm the initial diagnosis. By lunch time, the FBI had found a discarded rag on the premises that matched the soldier’s DNA and revealed that the virus was not only FMD, but the strain of FMD that is present in the Middle East. The soldier entered a no-contest plea to charges against him and was led off to jail to begin a long sentence.
Implausible in Virginia? – perhaps. Impossible? – not at all. “Virginia has never had a strike directed at the state’s largest industry, agriculture,” said Matthew J. Lohr, VDACS Commissioner. “As far as the experts are aware, no one has attempted it and failed, and no threat is imminent, but it could happen. The Agroterrorism Conference is one of the ways that we and our partners consider the possibilities and develop strategies for detecting, reacting to and limiting the impact of an attack should one occur.”
From the mock exercise to the last presentation, it was apparent that the participants had thought about the issue for some time and had concluded that a strike against agriculture was not only possible, but that they should be prepared to respond quickly and appropriately. The goal was for the people in the room to get to know each other and to understand each other’s capabilities, in other words, to practice for an event that they hoped never occurred.
The goal in the event of a terrorist strike is to detect, deter and defeat. Participants acknowledged that detection is the first step. Many diseases have similar symptoms, so lesions on the mouth and on the feet of cattle do not necessarily mean Foot and Mouth Disease. It is a distinct possibility, however, and initial tests in the given scenario led to FMD. To deter its spread even before final laboratory confirmation, participants quarantined the farm and initiated very strict biosecurity practices, even stricter than those practiced routinely. Once diagnosed, methods to defeat the disease and the terrorist were many pronged, from the FBI investigation of the crime scene to the state’s investigation to determine where the infected cattle had been and where other vehicles that visited the farm had gone.
The exercise was a many-pronged process, and so it would be in an actual event. “We play like we practice,” was a theme of the day, and the practice went well.
In summing up the conference, Samford said she believed the 110 participants went away with an enhanced knowledge about the vulnerability of Virginia’s agriculture industry. “I think a healthy perspective on the risks and education about our response is strategically important if we are to prevent terrorist acts or to respond quickly and appropriately should they occur,” she said. “This conference brought the people together who would work side-by-side in an emergency – state, local and federal officials; farmers; veterinarians; agribusinesses. Getting to know each other beforehand could save a lot of time and duplication of effort when responding to an actual crisis.”
The conference was sponsored by the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, the FBI Richmond and Virginia Tech, which hosted the event at the Skelton Conference Center.