BROOKSVILLE — Gary Dowell, a retired Coast Guard vessel safety inspector who lives in Spring Hill, recounted how he once watched as a boatload of frozen hamburger from Australia was being unloaded at the Port of New York. The crane hoisting the pallets malfunctioned, and, there in the open air, a pallet hung like a seat stuck atop a Ferris wheel.
"Aha! Right there," Art Johnstone declared, noting the potential target for an agroterror attack with pathogenic, chemical or biological contaminants on the nation's food supply.
The situation illustrated one spot among many, from farm to table, where the food supply is vulnerable, said Johnstone, a spokesman for the nationwide Rural Domestic Preparedness Consortium.
During a workshop last week in Hernando County, Johnstone urged awareness of the possibilities of agroterrorism to some 40 emergency responders from Hernando, Pasco, Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.
Dowell, 78, got the message. He came to the workshop to earn credits toward certification for a role with the Hernando County Community Emergency Rescue Team.
Other attendees, representing health departments, emergency management and sheriff's offices, came to fill in any blanks and sharpen their plans for responding to agroterrorist acts.
Lest the general populace pooh-pooh the possibility of assault on the farm-to-table chain, Johnstone reported that the 9/11 attackers looked at renting crop dusters in Florida. And when the U.S. military raided Osama bin Laden's hideout in Pakistan, he said, they found documents suggesting crop poisoning, toxin delivery to livestock and pathogens to insert into food.
The federal Department of Homeland Security and the consortium are somewhat guarded on their efforts to avert agroterrorism, realizing that news about those efforts might give a terrorist group ideas.
"But they can get (contaminant ideas) on the Internet in 10 minutes," Johnstone pointed out.
And he suspects terrorists may not yet have targeted agriculture because food chain deaths don't provide bloody pictures as do bullets and bombs.
The Homeland Security/consortium classes are being taught in rural areas to bring local producers and responders into what are usually statewide reaction plans.
As agricultural producers, transporters, processors, retailers and restaurants all figure in the food chain, "It's hard to take vulnerability out of a broad target," Johnstone conceded.
Hernando County Cooperative Extension Service director Stacy Strickland said the statewide extension service already has coordinated with the state agricultural response team. In the event of an attack on crops or livestock, Strickland said, "We'll wait on that team to give us our marching orders. We already have the command structure."
Hernando County emergency management director Cecilia Patella said, "We already have a comprehensive emergency plan — against all hazards. The state has strike teams; we have the ability to call those teams."
Indeed, Johnstone, who is based in Gainesville, said the state has been "very proactive" when it comes to preparing for the possibility of agroterrorism.
"I doubt any state in the country has done as much," he said.
He noted that some 4,000 Floridians have filled seats in the consortium's Agroterrorism 101 and other courses.
Also, Florida is ahead of the curve due to its long-existing emergency response plans and trained responders for hurricanes, he said.
Federal grants totaling $450,000 are available to state and local government entities in Florida for training in food safety regulatory standards, Johnstone told those in attendance.
Beth Gray can be contacted at [email protected]