- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 19, 2003

Lawmakers and analysts said yesterday that it would be relatively easy for al Qaeda terrorists to carry out a devastating attack on American agriculture, starting an epidemic that could cost the lives of millions of animals and harm the nation’s economy.

“It’s like a fire that’s out of control,” Tom McGinn, director of emergency programs for the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. “You never actually get ahead of [it].”

Foot-and-mouth disease, a virus also known as hoof-and-mouth disease, infects cloven-hooved animals, including cattle, pigs, deer and elk. It is the most virulent disease known to man, Mr. McGinn told the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, although it does not harm humans.

Because its symptoms are not noticeable for up to five days, computer simulations prepared for the departments of defense and agriculture show that a single attack could infect animals in more than 20 states before being recognized.

Mr. McGinn said one such simulation showed that even if all animal movement were banned after eight days, more than 26 million animals would have to be destroyed, either because they might have been exposed to the disease or to create a “firebreak” to block the spread of infection.

Early detection and swift, ruthless action would be key, he said.

“Every day that can be saved, especially early on, represents a saving of millions of animals and billions of dollars.”

Sen. Susan Collins, Maine Republican and committee chairman, pointed out that the foot-and-mouth epidemic in Britain in 2001 had cost $1.6 billion in compensation to farmers whose livestock had been destroyed and nearly three times that in collateral costs.

She called the speed with which the disease spread “truly alarming.”

“It also is evident that it would be relatively easy for an agri-terrorist to create such an outbreak and then just let it naturally spread on its own,” she said.

Lawmakers were concerned that the responsibility for responding to agri-terror is spread among more than 30 federal agencies.

“We have a lot of acronyms flying around today,” Mrs. Collins said.

There are probably too many agencies involved, said Sen. Jim Talent, Missouri Republican, adding that no one wanted all of them “running around doing the same thing” during an emergency.

Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, pointing out that 30 agencies — 13 of them in food inspection alone — and more than 35 laws and 70 congressional committees and subcommittees are involved, concluded: “We don’t have our act together in Washington by a long shot.”

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