Hoping to ease people's anxieties about what they were eating, President George W. Bush vowed to draw a protective shield around the food supply and defend it from farm to fork.
An Associated Press analysis of the programs found that the government has spent at least $3.4 billion on food counter-terrorism in the last decade, but key programs have been bogged down in a huge, multi-headed bureaucracy. And with no single agency in charge, officials acknowledge it's impossible to measure whether orchards or feedlots are actually any safer.
On Tuesday, a Senate subcommittee will hold a hearing to examine a congressional watchdog's new report revealing federal setbacks in protecting cattle and crops since Sept. 11. Just days after the 10th anniversary of the attacks, lawmakers are demanding answers about potential food-related threats and reports that the government could have wasted money on languishing agriculture anti-terror programs.
"The truth is, nobody's in charge," said John Hoffman, a former senior adviser for bio-surveillance and food defense at the Department of Homeland Security, who will testify at the hearing. "Our surveillance doesn't work yet, our intelligence doesn't work yet and we're not doing so well at targeting what comes across the border."
Top U.S. food defense authorities insist that the initiatives have made the food supply safer and say extensive investments have prepared the country to respond to emergencies. No terrorist group has threatened the food supply in the past decade, and the largest food poisonings have not arisen from foreign attacks, but from salmonella-tainted eggs produced on Iowa farms that sickened almost 2,000 people.
Seeking to chart the government's advances, the AP interviewed dozens of current and former state and federal officials and analyzed spending and program records for major food defense initiatives, and found:
— The fragmented system leaves no single agency accountable, at times slowing progress and blurring the lines of responsibility. Federal auditors found one Agriculture Department surveillance program to test for chemical, biological, and radiological agents was not working properly five years after its inception in part because agencies couldn't agree on who was in control.
— Efforts to move an aging animal disease lab from an island near New York City have stalled after leading scientists found an accidental release of foot-and-mouth was likely to happen at the new facility in America's beef belt.More...