Material presented at a Clovis workshop on agroterrorism was anything but a recipe on precise ways to foil terrorist attacks on agriculture, which is the backbone of the farm-rich San Joaquin Valley.

It was nothing like the terrorist handbook that David Goldenberg, one of the presenters displayed to participants.

Instead, it was a presentation on the alphabet soup of acronyms that figure into sorting out a terrorist attack — from the FBI to NIMS (the National Incident Management System) — and it was, above all, a call to vigilance and teamwork.

“Don’t pass out business cards over dead bodies,” said Goldenberg, acting program manager for preparedness training at the Western Institute for Food Safety and Security at the University of California at Davis.

Goldenberg’s point: Don’t wait until a threat has revealed itself to begin preparing for it, readying a response and getting acquainted with other likely players that will need to respond, from law enforcement to public health officials to citizen volunteers.

 

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“We’re not out to scare people, but to get them to prepare,” he said, “to have some kind of response in place as do those who respond in Hazmat situations.”

Those who attended the program, presented by the institute, included lawyers, students at the San Joaquin College of Law where it was held, a few in the agricultural industry, law enforcement and citizens out to learn more about where threats may lie.

Goldenberg and others emphasized a need to identify vulnerabilities, whether on the farm, in transportation or retail systems or at processing plants. And they said responding quickly — and with accuracy after a diagnosis — is important to cutting casualties and economic losses.

Agroterrorism is not theoretical. Speakers talked of the targeting of a laboratory at UC Davis, the destruction of tractor trailers at Harris Ranch, purposeful poisoning of salads in Oregon and hoaxes in which perpetrators sought to extort money, thereby spreading fear and economic harm.

 

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Goldenberg cited a quote by then Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson in 2004: “For the life of me, I cannot understand why the terrorists have not attacked our food supply, because it is so easy to do.”

He asked why Thompson would have said such a thing. “Because he’s stupid,” some said. But Goldenberg said, “Perhaps to wake up the government, industry.” He said the attacks of 911 were a wakeup call of a loss of innocence akin to the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

“The world was not the same,” he said.

Laxity in farm operations

During interviews, some in the audience said agriculture may actually have a leg up on the security issues, partly due to efforts that came before 9/11 to address food safety and traceability.

Chris Thiesen, who oversees food safety at Brandt Farms, a Reedley grower of tree fruit and table grapes, pointed out that growers have long dealt with audit schemes that pinpoint critical control points in growing, harvesting and processing of food and animals.

 

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He pointed to HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points), PrimusLabs Good Agricultural Practices, GlobalGAP and other regimens that help focus producers and others on where contamination can occur.

“Sanitation is paramount to what we do, and this another dimension of that,” Thiesen said.

 

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David Aquino, director of human resources with Giumarra Vineyards in Bakersfield, and Rudy Ortiz, safety compliance coordinator with Wawona Packing Co. in Cutler, said much the same thing.

“We know we need to identify areas of potential contamination and take it one step further,” said Aquino, who helped develop the curriculum for the program on agroterrorism.

He said special care is taken in vineyards where table grapes are picked and packed, in assuring that trucks that haul the grapes are free of contaminants and in identifying who has access to what within packing houses.

Some who spoke at the forum talked of a laxity in some farming and processing operations.

Peggy Schmidt, an associate professor with the College of Veterinary Medicine at the Western University of Health Sciences in Pomona, said nobody talked with her or challenged her in any way as she went about her business of colleting specimens at a dairy in Ontario in Southern California.

Fresno County Sheriff’s Sgt. Michael Chapman, a member of county’s Ag Task Force, was dismayed that thieves were able to make off with a truckload of almonds from a San Joaquin Valley plant, simply loading it up after pulling into the plant that was preparing to close for the day.

He said nobody called the plant manager to question the pickup.

“You’ve got to lock the doors,” he said.

“People out there have a good idea of what belongs and what doesn’t belong,” he said, adding that if neighbors or others see something that looks suspicious — whether it’s people peering through binoculars or trucks pulled into places they don’t normally appear — “make a timely report. People think law enforcement is too busy. Call us, or at least write down a license plate.”

Farm Watch

Schmidt and others said it is important to have added eyes on farm operations through programs like Farm Watch, which is akin to Neighborhood Watch in urban areas.

In the audience, Fresno County private investigator Rick Hustead said his partner in Riverside County has been active in starting a Farm Watch program that keeps an eye of 15,000 acres in the Coachella Valley.

 

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Another observer, Alan Roberts, a consultant with Stanley Convergent Security Solutions Inc. in Nipomo, Calif., said his company sells surveillance cameras. He said wireless systems are gaining increased attention, but they can be costly. He cited a company called Videofied with a monitored video alarm component.

Chapman is among those who continue to investigate the terrorist attack on Harris Farms in Fresno County about two years ago in which some $2 million in damage was caused by the torching of 14 tractor-trailer rigs.

Goldenberg said it is important to instruct farmworkers, “our first responders,” to be on the lookout for foul play and to “make sure they are empowered to say something is wrong.”

He talked of his involvement in coping with outbreaks of Exotic Newcastle Disease in chickens and said that egg producers acted quickly to get a handle on the problem because they kept good records on production and noted decline. He said astute record keeping can be key to spotlighting a problem.

 

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