FDA to bolster IT architecture to fight bioterrorism

With a single vial of the virus that causes foot-and-mouth disease and a quick swab across the noses of a few dairy cows, a terrorist could halt all U.S. exports of beef, dairy, pork and lamb.

That warning came this week from Michael Oraze, acting executive director of agricultural inspection policy and programs at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency. The economic costs of a terrorist attack involving a food-borne disease or chemical or biological agents introduced through imported food "are unthinkable," Oraze said.

The increased threat of bio- and agroterrorism has forced the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to ramp up its enterprise IT architecture efforts to ensure that the needed reporting and information-sharing capabilities are in place. Although many of the FDA systems used to track foreign food shipped to the U.S. have been in place for years, Gary Washington, the FDA's chief IT architect, said the agency is focusing on an effort to upgrade and integrate all nationwide food-tracking and security systems, and eventually introduce new information-sharing capabilities.

So far, the FDA has completed a US$16.5 million Java-based Web portal project that uses an Oracle database running on Unix servers. Known as the FDA's Unified Registration Listing System, it allows the agency to track and monitor activities at more than 200,000 food processing facilities nationwide. And although no specific technologies or processes have been identified yet, Washington said there are plans to develop an automated screening system for the entire food supply chain.

"We're also looking to target specific (food) imports based on historical data" that will be mined for trends, said Washington. A new data warehouse, which has not yet been designed, will enable better data integration. And new ad hoc reporting tools are being considered to support critical decision-making, he said.

"We're looking at going to a complete Java architecture," he said. "But we're still working on a technology road map to upgrade existing legacy technologies. Although enterprise architecture is relatively new to the FDA, we're putting performance measures in place now and plan to use the architecture to (upgrade) in an organized fashion."

Washington couldn't say how much money would be dedicated to the entire effort.

However, Charles McQueary, the undersecretary for science and technology at the DHS, announced on Tuesday that $33 million in university grants will be available for homeland security studies in the agricultural sector.

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