New Mexico has factors that make defending its $3 billion agriculture and food industry challenging: (a) three major interstates traversing the agriculture-based state (I-10, I-25, and I-40); (b) an international border to the south; and (c) a diverse and widely spread agriculture and food critical infrastructure – in addition to almost 1.5 million cattle and acres of quality alfalfa hay, the state produces milk, cheese, pecan, chile, and other agricultural products. The New Mexico Department of Agriculture – in collaboration with New Mexico State University College of Agricultural, Consumer, and Environmental Sciences – created a coordination and training vehicle in 2005 called the Southwest Border Food Safety and Defense Center. The Center works closely with the New Mexico Department of Homeland Security and receives funding in part through emergency management planning grants. In 2013, the Center made close to 300,000 training and education contacts through face-to-face trainings, information sharing at food and agriculture events, and newspaper inserts.
Each year, in partnership with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Center coordinates the New Mexico Food Protection Alliance Conference. Both public and private sector agencies and organizations come together to train, plan, and exercise for a food defense-related incident. In addition to the state alliance, county extension agents employed by New Mexico State University coordinate local food alliances for information gathering and dissemination.
The Center also hosted an FDA Food Defense Plan Builder training opportunity with many industry representatives in attendance, particularly the chile industry. After the Center presented at the Annual Chile Conference on food defense in early 2013, New Mexico’s chile industry has “stepped up” in order to ensure greater food defense planning and mitigation. “The benefits of working with our industry partners on food defense are immeasurable,” said Jeff Witte, Secretary of the New Mexico Department of Agriculture when interviewed at a New Mexico State University football game in late 2013 where the New Mexico Department of Agriculture helped coordinate Ag Day. “Not only do we protect our critical infrastructure, we get the private and public sectors communicating and partnering. We get to know each other.”
Leading the Food Defense Effort In July of last year, the Center created and conducted a functional exercise involving a salmonella outbreak on the New Mexico State University Campus. During that exercise, participants discovered numerous strengths and, as with any exercise, noted opportunities for improvement involving communication and effective use of the incident command system.
Through a cooperative agreement with the FDA’s Innovative Food Defense Program, partners in New Mexico finished the first version of a food defense recovery guide template in early 2013 that is currently available by emailing: email@example.com. New Mexico also champions other food defense-related activities found at http://www.fda.gov/fooddefense and emphasizes that food defense is everybody’s business.
Results of a Regional Resilience Assessment Program coordinated by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security of the dairy and cheese industries will be completed and reviewed in 2014. Those findings will assist with future planning and exercise efforts. In 2014, the New Mexico Department of Agriculture also plans to lead a “Cascading Events” full-scale exercise involving local and state partners, which will test private/public sector preparedness.
________________________ Kelly J. Hamilton, MPA, is the biosecurity director for the New Mexico Department of Agriculture and the Emergency Support Function (ESF #11) (agriculture and natural resources) coordinator for the State of New Mexico. He also co-directs the Southwest Border Food Safety and Defense Center and has spent more than 30 years in law enforcement and emergency preparedness. He works with the National Center for Biomedical Research and Training at Louisiana State University as a researcher, developer, and lecturer as well as at the Center for Agriculture and Food Security and Preparedness at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.