Insects: the next threat to national security?

11/17/11 Josh Holton
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The Department of Homeland Security has been trying to tighten borders in the name of national security. Airplane passengers and undocumented immigrants have spurred much of the national debate, but there is also concern that food imports should be monitored more closely.

Wednesday in Tampa industry specialists from the agriculture and food industry, law enforcement, the military and emergency management took a course on food security. It was offered by the Center for Agriculture and Food Security and Preparedness. Alan McConnell is the food industry specialist who taught the course, and said only one percent of food is seen before it hits shelves.

John Burkette is with the Office of Agricultural Emergency Preparedness at the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. He is concerned that terrorists could use insects to attack the American food system.

McConnell said insects are a natural part of agricultural processes where plots cover large areas of land.

And he said that even harmful fumigants, pesticides and toxic chemicals found on products could be allowed to enter the country.

Sometimes companies can misbrand products, artificially inflating their dollar value. But McConnell said that misbranding and mislabeling could also be harmful, as happened with some Chinese companies that were caught selling several tons of tainted milk over the last several years.

Earlier this year Republican Florida Senator Jim Norman proposed a bill to outlaw taking photographs on farms. But it died during the legislative session. John Burkette said that remote farms could provide an easy target for malicious activity.

In response to 9/11, congress passed the Bioterrorism Act in 2002. It requires that the Food and Drug Administration receive prior notice before food is imported into the United States. But The United States Department of Agriculture is not covered. Nelly Yunta works with for-profit shipping company Customized Brokers, and said that they have other guidelines.

Howard Wallace is with the Florida Department of Agriculture. He said that while the USDA inspects all meat poultry and egg products, the Food and Drug Administration has been asked on occasion to help inspect beef imports for mad cow disease. And although such a small amount of imports are physically inspected, Wallace suspects the economy won’t allow for much tougher scrutiny.

Wallace said that most instances of invasive species into Florida such as Mediterranean fruit flies and Giant African Land Snails have been innocent mistakes. But he said the last time the snails were a problem for Florida in the 1960s, eradication took 10 years.

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