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AP finds US government food counter-terrorism programs have failed

An Associated Press analysis found that the government has spent more than US$3.4 billion on food counter-terrorism over the past decade, but key programs have been slowed in the government.

A Senate subcommittee recently held a hearing to examine a congressional watchdog's new report that reveals federal setbacks in protecting cattle and crops since September 11, 2001.

"We may be blindsided by an intentional food-based attack on this nation sometime soon," said John Hoffman, a former Department of Homeland Security senior adviser. "The unfortunate truth is that we, as a nation, lack effective surveillance ... At present, our primary detection capability is the emergency room."

AP interviewed a number of current and former state and federal officials to analyze spending and program records for major food defense initiatives. The findings showed a fragmented system that holds no single agency accountable for food safety, making it difficult for agencies to agree on which one is in charge. AP says bureaucratic delays and funding concerns have slowed other efforts, including moving an old animal disease lab from its location on an island near New York, New York, USA.

The interviews also found that Congress is questioning whether the US$31 million spent by the Department of Homeland Security to create a data integration center for monitoring biological threats to food has really accomplished anything because the different regulating agencies are not using it to save information. Five years after its creation, the Food Emergency Response Network has not set up a targeted surveillance program to test for chemical, biological and radiological agents because the US Department of Agriculture and FDA still cannot agree on who runs it, USDA's Office of Inspector General found.

Moreover, AP found that many changes to food safety put in place by the government are recommendations that the private sector is not necessarily mandated to carry out, making it difficult to track successes and failures.

"We have made solid progress, but everything that has been done to date on food defense in the private sector has all been voluntary," said LeeAnne Jackson, FDA's health science policy adviser. "We can't go out and ask them what they have done, because they're not obliged to tell us, so we don't have a good metric to measure what's been done."

The Senate hearing was convened after requesting a new Government Accountability Office report, which that found there was no coordinated effort to oversee the government's progress on food defense. The National Security staff agreed to review the government’s food defense work, according to Lisa Shames, GAO director of natural resources and environment.

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