Shielding the US food supply from potential terrorist attacks will remain the top priority of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) during the current fiscal year.

US agriculture secretary Ann Veneman has admitted that on 11 September her department’s priorities shifted, and she recently revealed that the terrorist threat has led President Bush to recommend an additional US$131m be spent to protect the food supply and strengthen food safety programs. This money will supplement the US$326m provided for the USDA through the Defense Appropriations Act, signed by Bush in January.

“The protection of our food supply is critical,” Veneman told the press: “We must continue to invest in food safety, research and pest and disease programmes to ensure America’s consumers and food and agriculture systems are strong.”

The extra funding has already been earmarked for a number of areas. Animal health monitoring, to assess threats to livestock, will receive US$49m. The Agricultural Quarantine Inspection programme will meanwhile receive US$19m to increase the number of inspectors, canine teams and X-ray machines by 55% at ports of entry to the US. US$11m will be spent on expanding diagnostic, response and other programs in the Animal Plant Health Inspection Services.

Food Safety and Inspection Service activities will get US$28m and US$24m will be spent on increasing research aimed at protecting the food system and consumers from diseases, insects and pests.

Joseph A. Levitt, director of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN), explained that a “Food Security Action Plan” will be created to develop and implement strategies for assessing and addressing potential terrorist threats to the US’s domestic and imported food supply. The full details of this plan will be available mid-year.

The FDA issued guidelines earlier this year to help restaurants, food producers and other food handling establishments to ensure greater security of their products.

In a related story, Veneman announced yesterday [Monday] that Dr. Merle D. Pierson has been chosen as deputy under secretary for food safety.

In a news release, Veneman commented: “I’m extremely pleased that Merle Pierson is joining the USDA team. His scientific expertise in food safety will serve USDA well as we continue to develop sound food safety policies based on science.”

Pierson, professor of food microbiology and safety at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (VPI), is internationally recognized for his work with Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) systems and research on the reduction and control of foodborne pathogens.