In the years since the September 2001 terrorist attacks — a time also marked by independent concerns about bovine spongiform encephalopathy, hoof-and-mouth disease, foodborne-illness outbreaks linked to pathogens like E. coli O157:H7 and Salmonella, and worries about human-to-human transmission of avian influenza — collaborative efforts to prevent both the intentional and inadvertent contamination of the nation’s food supply have ramped up among all levels of industry and government.

One example of a proactive effort is the Strategic Partnership Program Agroterrorism (SPPA), an initiative involving federal and state government agencies and private sector volunteers, including associations, business leaders and farmers and ranchers. That initiative has involved several programs, from vulnerability assessments to regional training and education programs.

To assess threats from terrorists who would use a foodborne contaminant as a weapon of mass destruction (WMD) and to illustrate inter- and intra-industry collaborations over the past several years, The National Provisioner spoke with Supervisory Special Agent Peter DeLaCuesta of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Agent DeLaCuesta specializes in WMD issues relating to infrastructure, which includes the nation’s food supply.

NP: What are some of the government’s more recent efforts created to combat the threat of agroterrorism, with the help of those within the industry?
Special Agent Peter DeLaCuesta, FBI: One of the largest outreach efforts we’ve done is in creating the strategic partnership program. For the FBI, that has been our greatest outreach effort in food and agriculture, and it’s coordinated with our partners including the Department of Homeland Security, the FDA and USDA.

NP: How does this partnership work in action?
DeLaCuesta: It’s designed to identify crucial nodes in the food sector, identify vulnerabilities and target-harden some of those areas, utilizing the CARVER + Shock method (an extensive, collaborative vulnerability assessment). That has been a great tool for us, because it is not just the federal government out there by itself, but a joint effort between the federal and state governments, and industry.

NP: How extensive is interest and involvement within the industry?
DeLaCuesta: We’ve gotten across-the-board interest, from mom-and-pop companies to conglomerates. Some of the major associations are part of our steering committee.

NP: What makes agricultural industries, including commodity industries, distinctive in the joint effort to ensure the safety and security of the nation’s food supply?
DeLaCuesta: The issue with food and agriculture is that it is not your typical infrastructure — it is a farm-to-fork continuum. It’s a large process.

NP: Along those lines, what are some challenges unique to meat- and poultry-processing facilities?
DeLaCuesta: The crucial nodes vary depending on the processing, of course, but some of the issues are pretty much the same across the board. Hiring practices and turnover, especially in food and agriculture, is one of the things we look at. Transportation, in which thousands of pounds of meat is moving, is another. One thing we have noticed is that while [meat- and poultry-processing] facilities themselves are pretty good in comparison to each other, the biggest issue — and where you are the most vulnerable — seems to be in transportation.

NP: How does the nature of production, processing and distribution of meat and poultry, whether it’s chickens, hogs or cattle, make it challenging for your agencies in a terrorist scenario?
DeLaCuesta: A big concern is that there would be a tremendous lag time, whether it is an organism put into poultry or beef during processing, or something that was added to a vegetable. There is a lag time in determining whether it is a critical event or a naturally occurring event. That is why we partner up with the USDA and FDA and reach out to the industry. If it turns out to be naturally occurring, we can stand down. If we don’t have to be there, we won’t, but let’s not play catch-up — let’s be there in the beginning.

NP: How would you describe the overall state of security in the nation’s meat- and poultry-processing plants?
DeLaCuesta: When you are talking about facilities, most of them have good biosecurity, and that often translates into overall physical security as well. We’ve learned that no one knows their facilities and people who belong there better than the people who work there every day, so if there is something strange going on, they will notice it.

NP: Without divulging sensitive information, can you share any examples of potential gaps in security in this part of the farm-to-plate chain, and how they have been or could be closed?
DeLaCuesta: Who do you call if you do have a concern — will it be the local police department?

9-1-1? It’s really about the education, for the industry as well as the local law enforcement. We have 56 field offices, each of which has a WMD coordinator, and between the WMD coordinator and assistants, we have 108 to 111 professionals. The WMD coordinators have an agroterrorism-working group. That said, we don’t want to re-create the wheel. So if a state already has an agroterrorism-working group, the WMD coordinator will plug right in and provide federal law-enforcement presence. That is where the rubber meets the road.

NP: As we near the seventh anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 2001 and the anthrax scare that followed it, how would you describe the sense of commitment to security?
DeLaCuesta: As an industry, there is much more awareness and much more security going on in the industry, not just in target-hardening but in biosecurity as well. There is always a risk of complacency — people have a short memory, and we all do — but it is our job, the FBI, to remind folks what happened and what we all need to do. We stay focused and provide the best information. And as specific threat information becomes available, we will share it with the industry.