Agricultural agent warns about food security

By Lesley Jenkins
Star Staff
Elizabethton/Carter County Local Emergency Planning Committee gathered on Tuesday, with dozens of guests present, to discuss the direction the county and city is moving in when it comes to an emergency situation. Whether it be a terrorist attack with chemicals or another accident involving a propane truck on West Elk Ave., the local emergency agencies are working to be fully prepared if something unfortunate happens in the future. Another concern of the committee is agricultural terrorism and studies performed by the Carter County Department of Health into illness outbreaks.
Keith Hart, Carter County Agricultural Extension Agent, spoke concerning agri-terrorism. The main topic he discussed was food security. In the past before Sept. 11, 2001, the agricultural department focused on food safety. "The world changed after 9/11. We're moving to food security as opposed to food safety," said Hart.
He discussed the importance of understanding bacteria and fungi that can affect crops. In the 95 Tennessee counties, each one has an extension office. This is important to each county because testing for dangerous insects and fungi that can destroy crops can be focused into that specific region.
Most of the testing done in Carter County is for an educational role. "Our role is educational and trying to get people to do what is safe and proper," said Hart. "Some people call and say 'I want to use a safe chemical.' What's my answer to that? There are no safe chemicals," said Hart.
The reason the extension agency is so concerned with chemicals and food products is because "it is very cheap and easy to destroy food products," said Hart.
"Everyone knows blue mold. There are a lot of other viruses and other fungi that are just as destructive (to agriculture) if the environmental conditions are right. And this year (the environment) is right with all the rainfall," said Hart.
Protecting livestock is also a significant item the extension agency strives to do. "The biggest thing that would cause the most immediate impact would be one animal coming in here with a highly contagious disease that would transmit it to other animals," said Hart. Examples of dangerous diseases would be foot and mouth disease, West Nile virus and equine encephalitis. West Nile has killed about 30 percent of the horses it infects but equine encephalitis will kill close to 90 percent of equines infected.
Shirley Hughes, registered nurse for the Tennessee Department of Health, explained the importance of syndromic surveillance that the department is performing. She defined the surveillance as "looking into different syndromes. We are seeing certain things that give us a lead into foreseeing people come in that have gastrointestinal illnesses or some type of pulmonary type situation. This might lead into trying to put together a definition of what we may be seeing as possible terrorism."
By Tennessee law, certain illnesses must be reported to the health department from hospitals, physician offices and 911 centers. This helps the department know if an investigation is needed into a reoccurrence of certain diseases or symptoms.
The department of health also compiles information that helps them determine what medicines to use in next year's flu vaccine, and also how prevalent the flu is in the county.
Hughes also gave an update about the work in the area. "We are working very closely with Mountain States Health Alliance and their transmission data and getting the information from their five hospitals into our data," said Hughes. Unicoi County hospitals will be transmitting their data to the health department beginning in September.