Study shows milk supply is vulnerable

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(Host) A new study that shows the nation’s milk supply is vulnerable to a terrorist attack is gaining attention in Vermont. Agriculture Secretary Steve Kerr says officials have taken steps to protect milk shipments, but that more could be done.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) Just a third of an ounce of botulism toxin dumped in a milk truck could kill hundreds of thousands of people. That’s the frightening scenario spelled out in a research paper published this week by the National Academy of Sciences.

Agriculture Secretary Steve Kerr says officials have known for some time that the food supply could be a soft target for terrorists. He says the Food and Drug Administration has studied the issue.

(Kerr) “The first product they looked at was milk. Because they realized this is the perfect product. It’s produced at over 60,000 different spots in the country. They’re unguarded. The product is co-mingled. It is then shipped to urban areas, where it’s shipped in small packages to large numbers of people.”

(Dillon) Kerr would like to see federal Homeland Security money allocated to agriculture, rather than just law enforcement agencies.

(Kerr) “The food supply in this country is largely unguarded. That doesn’t mean that it’s perfectly vulnerable. Believe me, the Cabots and the St. Albans of the world have their own security systems. They don’t just let people wander in and out. But yeah, it’s a new concern and it’s something we need to work on, and we are.”

(Dillon) The Stanford University scientists who did the research outlined some relatively inexpensive steps they say would address the vulnerabilities in the system.

These include making sure milk tankers are locked, improving pasteurization, and additional testing to detect contamination.

Doug DiMento is a spokesman for the Agri-Mark dairy cooperative, which handles about three billion pounds of milk a year. He says the co-op improved security after the 9-11 terrorist attacks.

(DiMento) “Our truckloads are all locked, our compartments of milk are locked after the last farm is picked up and it’s sealed and secured. And that seal isn’t broken until it comes to a processing plant, whether it’s one of our plants or one of our customer’s plants.”

(Dillon) Agriculture Secretary Kerr says his agency will work with the processing plants in Vermont to see what tests they conduct on milk. But he isn’t sure whether the industry needs to test for botulism or other bioterrorist threats in the milk supply, since the risk is still relatively low.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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