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Tennessee center to train guardians for food supply
Tennessee Correspondent

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Making good on a $2 million training grant from the federal Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is the first project of the new Center for Agriculture and Food Security and Preparedness (CAFSP) at the University of Tennessee’s College of Veterinary Medicine.

Dr. Michael Blackwell, dean of the college, unveiled both the CAFSP and the pilot training program in Knoxville last week. Simply explained, the program is aimed at those who oversee the production or transportation of food for the nation, to help them find and strengthen vulnerable points in those operations, which could be purposely exploited for contamination and disease.

“(Food supply would) be one of the easiest ways for a terrorist group to hit us domestically,” said Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.).

He explained the House Appropriations Committee gave DHS discretion to choose the recipient of the $2 million last year, and the selection “says what we’ve known all along” about the excellence of UT.

Though 300 million people can’t possibly take the three-day training course, Blackwell said it and other future activities of the CAFSP – under the direction of Dr. Sharon Thompson, current director of partnership programs at the College – “will affect every American – that is, as long as they’re still eating.”

Dr. F. Ann Draughon, co-director of the UT Food Safety Center of Excellence (a separate entity not to be confused with CAFSP), helped write two of the program’s training modules on assessment of general governmental regulations and of the food processing industry.

Draughon’s work is in practical food safety research and dealing directly with food processors to improve their operations. The CAFSP training program will be aimed at the industry and at farmers who are interested. Mostly, it should benefit public officials at the local, state and federal levels who don’t know how agriculture works, yet would even now have to make and enforce policy decisions affecting food supply in an emergency.

“I don’t think the average public planner understands the food industry enough to do a really good assessment,” Draughon pointed out.

Thompson, who began her veterinary career as a practicing vet, has had various jobs of increasing responsibility within the federal government through the years, including associate director for Veterinary Medical and International Affairs for FDA. She is working on her Master’s in Public Health at UT and has been responsible for seeking DHS grants for the university.

“What I’m really keen on is getting the (food) industry to take care of their own,” she said, explaining this is not another governmental regulation for growers and livestock producers.

To paraphrase a saying, the program is geared to teach a man to fish rather than giving him fish – or, in this case, self-assessment for producers, processors and overseers. “We believe everyone wants to do their part,” said Blackwell, to reduce vulnerabilities in the U.S. food supply.

Thompson added the training is coming from an academic perspective, not government, as evidenced by UT’s development partners in New Mexico, Virginia, Maryland and Iowa (Kirkwood Community College), though CAFSP does have governmental partners in a few states’ departments of agriculture and DHS.

Those states are where CAFSP will conduct pilot training for DHS review and approval during the next several weeks. Thompson hopes the review process will finish before 2007 so CAFSP can begin offering the three-day course in communities across the nation.

One exercise might be to examine a sample dairy operation. Thompson pointed out it’s not only milk a producer must guard, but also their cows’ grain supply.

Training will include tracing the feed back to its origin and looking for key points where someone unguarded could introduce an agent to harm the cows, then examining how to cover those gaps – or, in military lingo, “harden the target.”

It’s not just crops or milk, cheese and the like CAFSP is geared to protect. Blackwell said 85 percent of animal diseases are zoonotic, or capable of making the leap from animal to human, so poisoning a load of grain or tank of milk isn’t the only means of harming the food supply.

“We’re now in a world where we have to worry about adversaries deliberately attacking our agriculture infrastructure,” said Rick Shipkowski, deputy director of the Tennessee Office of Homeland Security.

This farm news was published in the Oct. 25, 2006 issue of Farm World, serving Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan and Tennessee.