Agricultural biosecurity taking on increased importance
Improving upon food safety and animal health has been an important aspect of veterinary medicine and the U.S. livestock industries for many years. Unfortunately, since 9/11 we face a different security challenge with agricultural biosecurity taking on an increased importance. Our current agricultural food safety and security programs have provided the citizens of the U.S. the safest food production system the world has ever seen. But these programs were not designed to identify or respond to intentional acts of bioterrorism using either conventional or unconventional biological agents to contaminate our food or food processing/distribution system.
Because the potential consequences of agricultural bioterrorism are high and the vulnerabilities widespread, a lot of work awaits the American agricultural industry and its research allies in academia and government. Right now, we do not have effective systems for detecting, reporting and effectively mitigating outbreaks of new diseases or pests. Our decisionmaking process is ambiguous. We also do not have validated intervention strategies that could be applied to our food production, processing and distribution systems once an event has occurred. Existing strategies could actually make the problems worse and amplify the economic impact.
Many have recommended that what is needed is a suite of new strategies and technologies that can be integrated with the existing food production infrastructure. These strategies and technologies need to be based on solid systems analysis that emphasizes the vulnerabilities and critical nodes in the agriculture and food distribution system.
Beginning with discussions and deliberations on how to improve security to counter the threat of agricultural bioterrorism, the Agricultural and Food Security Consortium was formed in the fall of 2002 and was embodied in a formal agreement between Sandia, New Mexico State University, and Kansas State University. What was described as a "Unique Partnership for Defense" has evolved into a relationship whereby our academic strengths and expertise in agriculture, animal health, food production and food safety are working with Sandia's capabilities in security systems engineering, system analysis and consequence management.
As a veterinarian who has spent a good part of the last 15 years developing diagnostic tests for veterinary and food safety applications, developing a collaborative relationship with Sandia National Laboratories has been a win-win opportunity with impact on the agricultural security programs at Kansas State University, particularly in the College of Agriculture and the College of Veterinary Medicine. Initial collaborations have included the Rapid Syndrome Validation Project for Animals (RSVP-A), the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Biological Security Decontamination Technology projects.
Using K-State's Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory capabilities to handle pathogens that can't be handled at Sandia, we have rapidly and relatively inexpensively evaluated the decontamination formulation's effectiveness on a viral agent that infects cattle (Bovine coronaviruses) and has impacted the U.S. livestock industry for many years. An added advantage of this research approach is that Bovine coronaviruses are also recognized as a surrogate research model for the SARS virus that has recently emerged as a disease in people. We believe this validation process that uses surrogates or very similar model agents will demonstrate the dual-usage applications of the formulation for responding to natural or unintentional contaminating events and nontraditional or intentional contaminating events.
Another valuable spin-off of this collaboration is the opportunity to define the mechanism of action that allows the decontamination formulation or other disinfectants to kill or inactivate select biological agents. Knowing this, we hope to specifically develop improved detection methods looking for specific footprints (proteins or nucleic acids) that allow us to detect and differentiate killed or inactivated agents from infectious or viable biological agents.
The former determination would be necessary before any return to normal production could begin or before a facility would be inhabitable by livestock or personnel following an event. Being able to accomplish this rapidly and with confidence is a key component of consequence management and a major goal of our collaboration as we address this challenge.
Dr. Richard D. Oberst is director of the Molecular Diagnostic Laboratory, Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory and a faculty member in the Food Animal Health and Management Center and the Food Science Institute at Kansas State University, Manhattan, Kansas. His current research goal is to develop, evaluate and apply nucleic acid-based detection systems to food-animal production systems and the practice of Veterinary Medicine via food safety, environmental sampling and animal-public health.