NMSU branding

New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

News Center

NMSU-coordinated training, awareness help protect food supply

Protection of the food supply from natural and terrorist-caused threats is no easy task, but the launch of a community policing program and an extensive, ongoing training process is helping ensure people are vigilant in watching for threats and prepared to respond in an emergency.

Billy Dictson, right, director of the Office of Biosecurity at New Mexico State University, and NMSU student Chelsea Bader go over final details of a training program that will be presented April 19-20 at the Statewide Biosecurity Conference in Las Cruces. (NMSU Agricultural Communications photo by J. Victor Espinoza)

these efforts are the Office of Biosecurity at New Mexico State University's College of Agriculture and Home Economics, and the New Mexico Department of Agriculture.

Awareness and training are key elements of a successful strategy for avoiding threats to the food supply, said Billy Dictson, director of the Office of Biosecurity.

The Agroguard community policing program, which began in December, encourages farmers, ranchers, chemical handlers, aerial chemical applicators, agricultural truckers and members of agricultural cooperatives to help avoid problems by being the eyes and ears for law enforcement.

Thousands of window decals, reflective stickers for vehicles and large metal signs for agricultural locations, such as farms, feed lots and fertilizer production and storage facilities, were funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Citizen Corps. They will be distributed across the state. The decals, stickers and signs display a telephone number for reporting suspicious activity: 1-888-442-NMSP (6677), which is answered at the New Mexico State Police office in Alamogordo.

Participants are encouraged to report anyone asking specific questions about a facility or process; people taking unauthorized photographs; or those in possession of chemicals, biological agents, vaccines or medication with no reason to have such materials. Attempts to rent or borrow agricultural-related equipment for no apparent reason; thefts of anhydrous ammonia or other chemicals; and thefts of livestock also should raise suspicion.

The program asks that people report suspicious signs and symptoms of illness in people and livestock, and gives guidelines on what information to report.

"The program just heightens their awareness, to watch for something out of the ordinary going on," Dictson said.

Preventing a problem is a lot better than trying to deal with an emergency. Intentional or accidental contamination of the food supply or the introduction of plant and animal diseases could do tremendous psychological and economical damage to the country. But few state governments have taken similar steps to safeguard food from agro-terrorism.

"We're one of about three states in the country to do anything in this regard," Dictson said.

Cooperating with NMSU and NMDA in the Agroguard program are the New Mexico Livestock Board, New Mexico Sheriffs and Police Association, New Mexico Department of Public Safety and Governor's Office of Homeland Security.

NMSU and NMDA also have provided instruction and preparation training to about 1,300 people in agriculture, law enforcement, emergency response, NMSU's Cooperative Extension Service, NMDA, NMLB and other government agency personnel during January, February and March, funded by a grant from the state Office of Homeland Security.

A 10-state Border Governors Agriculture Tabletop exercise last February in Las Cruces involved more than 140 people from four U.S. states and six Mexican states. Led by NMDA's Jeff Witte, it was funded by an NMDA grant.

About 200 first-responders and first-detectors were intensively trained in three three-day classes in Las Cruces and Albuquerque. The Homeland Security certified class was offered in partnership with Louisiana State University's National Center for Biomedical Research and Training.

Additional training will be offered April 19-20 at the Statewide Biosecurity Conference in Las Cruces. The conference is geared to employees of the Extension Service, NMDA and NMLB. Among those scheduled to speak at the conference are veterinarian Steve Van Wie, who was involved in the response to an outbreak of foot and mouth disease among livestock in the United Kingdom in 2001; Carla Thomas, deputy director of the Western Region National Plant Diagnostic Network; Shaun Kennedy, deputy director of the National Center for Food Protection and Defense at the University of Minnesota; and Sheryl K. Maddux, acting director of the USDA Homeland Security office.

The training process led to the formation of the first group in the state to work on a specific preparedness plan for its area. In northeastern New Mexico, known for its many livestock feed lots and sale barns, the new group had its organizational meeting last month. Among future training sessions is one geared to Native American pueblos in north-central New Mexico April 28 at the Bernalillo County Extension office in Albuquerque.