Kansas City, Mo. The nation's focus on protecting its agriculture, food and livestock from terrorism and infectious diseases has waned since it became a top priority after the Sept. 11 attacks, but it's time to refocus on the issue, U.S. senators from Kansas and Missouri said Friday.
Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Republican Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas met with government, education and private officials from several agencies tasked with preventing or reacting to attacks on the nation's food supply. While they insisted the U.S. still has the safest food supply in the world, panel members acknowledged problems with coordination, budgeting and a dwindling number of employees trained to help with the effort.
President Donald Trump in June signed a bill co-sponsored by McCaskill and Roberts, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, that requires the Department of Homeland Security to coordinate the efforts.
William Bryan, acting undersecretary of the agency, said no government can protect against every possible threat because there simply isn't enough money.
"Every sector is unique, every sector is different and there is not enough money to pay for everything," he said. "Every sector is unique ... so we have to look within those sectors and determine where do we take the few resources available to us and how do we maximize them."
Some issues raised during the event included a lack of students interested in the fields that would help find and fight toxins and pathogens, a drop in funding for already-established protection programs and a need for more agents in the nation's ports.
The potential danger involves so many variables and possible scenarios that it's hard to keep the nation's and media's attention, the senators said.
"I don't want to scare anybody or signal that we have an immediate problem, but you never know," Roberts said. "And it's so easy to do with regards to our nation's food supply. ... This is an ongoing project and the attention and funding to this problem have waned, and we have to pick it up."
McCaskill said terrorist attacks such as vans running into pedestrians get immediate attention, while threats that might be more dangerous are not as visible to the public.
"That's one of the things we struggle with: How do we keep problems that could be serious on the front burner and getting the attention they need?" she said.
Roberts said he discussed agricultural terrorism with Trump earlier this year and "that raised his eyebrows." He said the president was interested in the topic and offered to do whatever he could.
Roberts and McCaskill discussed having a joint Senate hearing on bioterrorism and agriculture, which Roberts said would draw national attention and perhaps help with funding appropriations.
Despite the efforts of the intelligence community, it's impossible to determine whether the greatest threat to the food supply could come from foreign or domestic sources, McCaskill said.
"That's not the point. The point is we need to be prepared," she said. "We need to have the systems in place and the research done so that if a pathogen or toxin is introduced that we know what to do and how to do it and obviously how to prevent it in the first place."