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Officials fear terrorist attack on U.S. food supply

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  • Officials fear terrorist attack on U.S. food supply

    June 10, 2003
    Officials fear terrorist attack on U.S. food supply

    By Katherine McIntire Peters
    [email protected]

    When members of the al Qaeda terrorist network abandoned their caves and safe houses in Afghanistan after being routed by U.S. troops in the months after the Sept. 11 attacks, they left behind many clues to their aspirations. Besides the supplies and cell phones, ammunition and assorted weaponry one might expect to find with any modern paramilitary organization were thousands of documents and computer records. Among this mother lode of information were hundreds of pages of U.S. agricultural documents that had been translated into Arabic.

    Al Qaeda’s interest in American agriculture was more than academic, according to government officials. A significant part of the group’s training manual is reportedly devoted to agricultural terrorism—the destruction of crops, livestock and food processing operations.

    It shouldn’t be surprising that a determined enemy like al Qaeda would consider ways to disrupt U.S. food supplies. The history of warfare is full of examples of burned crops, poisoned wells and slaughtered herds. Agriculture is an obvious target for terrorists: infecting plants or animals with deadly disease is easier, cheaper and less risky than infecting humans directly; the economic consequences of a widespread attack would be enormous; and the panic and fear such an attack might reap could lead to wide-scale social disruption.

    Over the past 18 months, state and federal agencies have beefed up security and increased inspections of food and agricultural facilities across the country. But in an industry as complex and varied as agriculture, security is an elusive concept. From sprawling farms to feed lots, from state fairs to food processing plants, there are countless points at which terrorists could access the food supply system with relative ease. Defense Department officials are so concerned about the prospect of an attack that twice over the past several months, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s Strategic Policy Forum has conducted classified crisis simulation exercises for members of Congress and federal officials across government to plan potential responses to an incident.

    The fact that the United States has not experienced a major agricultural or food-related disaster in recent memory is more a function of luck than design, says Peter Chalk, a policy analyst with RAND, a nonprofit research organization. “There is little real appreciation for either the threat or the potential consequences,” Chalk says.

    In an article for RAND Review last summer, Chalk wrote that the farming and food industries are highly vulnerable to both deliberate and accidental disruption for several reasons: The routine use of antibiotics and growth stimulants in animal diets has heightened the susceptibility of animals to disease; infectious animal diseases can spread rapidly across the country because of the highly concentrated nature of U.S. farming; and the huge number of food processing facilities—most of which have highly transient unscreened workforces, minimal security and inadequate procedures for recalling products—are ideal sites for the deliberate introduction of toxins into the food supply.

    Critical Infrastructure

    According to the Agriculture Department, one out of eight Americans works in an occupation directly supported by food production, making the food and agricultural sector the nation’s largest employer. The farm sector alone, with agricultural exports exceeding $50 billion a year, is the largest positive contributor to the U.S. trade balance.

    By any reasonable measure, agriculture is not just a vital component of the national economy, but of the global economy as well. Exports of American agricultural products account for 15 percent of all global agricultural exports. The United States in 1998 produced nearly half the world’s soybeans, more than 40 percent of its corn, 20 percent of its cotton, 12 percent of its wheat and 16 percent of its meat.

    In a report issued by the National Defense University last March, Henry Parker, a researcher at USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, wrote that there are five potential targets of agricultural bioterrorism: field crops; farm animals; food items in the processing or distribution chain; market-ready foods at the wholesale or retail level; and agricultural facilities, including processing plants, storage facilities, wholesale and retail food outlets, elements of the transportation infrastructure, and research laboratories.

    In the report, Parker said that “America is exceedingly vulnerable to agricultural bioterrorism. The reasons for the situation are numerous. To begin, there is limited appreciation for the economic and social importance of agriculture in the industrialized [world]. Abundant, affordable and safe food supplies are largely taken for granted. . . . It is hard for American citizens to imagine a world where the availability of food radically changes for the worse.”

    Yet it’s not hard for terrorism analysts to imagine the impact of a major attack. RAND officials estimate that no major U.S. city has more than a seven-day supply of food. The consequences of a major attack on food sources, especially animals, would be felt almost immediately by consumers. Such an attack could easily spread fear and panic and quickly undermine public confidence in government.

    According to Parker, the size and complexity of U.S. agribusiness makes it a tempting target, and the industry’s widespread vertical integration, where a single company controls much of the commodity production, processing and distribution system, makes it easier for pathogens to spread quickly over a wide area.

    State and federal agencies have taken a number of steps to improve security. Twenty states have passed or are considering legislation related to agricultural terrorism, according to data compiled by the Council of State Governments, and many have hired more farm and food inspectors, developed guidelines or requirements for improving physical security at agricultural facilities, and are building more effective disease surveillance networks.

    At the federal level, responsibility for ensuring food safety is for the most part spread across three departments: At the Agriculture Department, the Food Safety and Inspection Service monitors meat and poultry products and plans for responding to outbreaks of food-borne illness, while a division of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service is responsible for protecting agricultural crops and plants from disease. At the Department of Health and Human Services, the Food and Drug Administration is responsible for ensuring the safety of seafood, plant and dairy foods and beverages and other food products. The Homeland Security Department has taken over the inspection of food and agricultural products entering the United States, formerly a function of APHIS’ Agricultural Quarantine Inspection program. Close coordination among these various agencies and their state counterparts is vital to effectively securing the food supply.

    Over the last 18 months, agencies have taken steps to boost their inspection and analysis capabilities. USDA has hired 20 new “import surveillance liaison” inspectors, who will reinspect imported meat and poultry products at various locations across the country. The agency is increasing the identification and diagnostic capacities at federal and state laboratories—a critical need, because responding quickly to an outbreak will be key to reducing the health and economic consequences of an attack. Also, as a result of the 2002 Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act, the Food and Drug Administration is tightening food safety regulations in several ways: requiring food processing facilities to register with the agency, mandating that companies provide advance notice of imported food shipments, and maintaining better records to make it easier to trace tainted food to its source.

    All these steps are welcome, but terrorism experts say much more is needed. Chalk believes federal and state agencies remain woefully unprepared to respond to an agricultural or food-related disaster. He suggests giving a single federal agency the authority to standardize and rationalize food and agricultural safety procedures across a wide spectrum of jurisdictions: “Such an agency could help weave together the patchwork of largely uncoordinated food safety initiatives that currently exist in the United States.”

    Silent Prairie

    Many agricultural experts believe the greatest threat to U.S. agriculture would be the deliberate or accidental introduction of foot-and-mouth disease, the highly contagious viral disease that attacks cloven-footed animals, including cattle, swine, sheep, deer and elk. While humans cannot contract the disease from animals, its effect on animals is so swift and debilitating that milk and meat production could be severely cut nationwide. With thousands of animals being transported across state lines every day, an outbreak could spread within days, before animal health officials would even be able to provide a definitive diagnosis.

    Even rumors of an outbreak can have economic consequences. At a Holstein market in Kansas one afternoon in March, a veterinarian discovered sores in the mouths of some of the cattle. He didn’t believe the problem was foot-and-mouth disease, but following procedures, he notified the state animal heath department. By 5 p.m., a state veterinarian, who had studied the devastating 2001 outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in the United Kingdom, arrived at the market to test the animals. He also believed the problem was something other than foot-and-mouth disease. Nevertheless, the next morning, even before the appearance of news reports citing the discovery of a potential problem with the cattle, the national cattle futures market plummeted.

    “There were six people who witnessed [the veterinarian inspecting the cattle] at the market,” says Maj. Gen. Gregory Gardner, adjutant general and director of emergency management for the state of Kansas. “That’s how powerful rumors can be.” It turned out the cattle had eaten hay containing thorns, which caused the sores.

    According to Parker, more than 70 different strains of foot-and-mouth disease exist. It is the most infectious virus known, capable of spreading in wind-driven aerosol form more than 170 miles from its source. In Taiwan in March 1997, after the disease was confirmed in pigs there, it spread throughout the island within six weeks, forcing authorities to slaughter more than 8 million pigs and halt pork exports.

    “The origin of the disease was reportedly traced to a single pig from Hong Kong, and China was suspected of deliberately introducing the disease into Taiwan,” Parker wrote. “The disease is still affecting Taiwan, and the ultimate costs to that nation are estimated to be at least $19 billion—$4 billion to diagnose and eradicate the disease and another $15 billion in indirect losses from trade embargoes. Was this an act of biowarfare or bioterrorism? The answer may never be known, but it is a plausible hypothesis that it indeed was.”

    No cases of foot-and-mouth disease have been diagnosed in the United States since 1929, but with more than 100 million head of cattle, 70 million pigs, 10 million sheep and more than 40 million wild cloven-footed animals, the country remains at great risk for the disease, Parker says, estimating that even a limited outbreak affecting no more than 10 farms could have a $2 billion economic impact. Containing the disease to a small number of farms would be enormously difficult, he says.

    Responding to an epidemic of foot-and-mouth disease also would involve the coordinated efforts of thousands of local, state and federal officials, and likely require the deployment of National Guard troops—and perhaps even federal troops—to help enforce quarantines and help destroy infected animals.

    The two classified agro-terrorism response exercises sponsored by the Defense Department, both called “Silent Prairie,” involved the spread of foot-and-mouth disease at a time when the military was engaged in overseas missions. Air Force Col. Jim Haas, the exercise coordinator and an analyst at the National Defense University, says the exercise was designed to enlighten officials about the complex decisions they would have to make in the event of a major disease outbreak, as well as the “second- and third-order effects” on things such as agricultural exports and trade agreements.

    The 40 participants in the most recent exercise in February, including several members of Congress, Defense’s Rumsfeld, Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman and personnel from state and federal agencies, were not role-playing from a predetermined script, Haas says. “Everyone’s expertise is what they walked in the door with. That’s what makes these exercises especially valuable and informative.”

    ‘A Big Bull's-Eye’

    Foot-and-mouth is only one of many diseases that could have devastating consequences for the U.S. economy. An attack on crops would have even greater consequences, according to Parker.

    Crops make up more than half the total value of American farm commodities and contribute more to exports, Parker wrote in his study. “More important,” he noted, “crops comprise the major components of prepared feeds for livestock, poultry and farm-raised fish. Finally, deliberate contamination of processed foods by terrorists could have devastating consequences, not only in terms of human health, but also because of economic impact and loss of consumer confidence in the safety of the nation’s food supplies.”

    States are not waiting for the federal government to figure out solutions, but they’re also realistic about their own ability to protect the food supply. A December report by the Council of State Governments’ Midwestern Office found that risk management is critical. Only by focusing efforts on key vulnerabilities can officials hope to reduce the likelihood of an attack as well as the severity of damage. “Complete surveillance of U.S. agricultural holdings is not a realistic, cost-effective option. With more than 500,000 farms and 57,000 processors in the United States, and more than 350,000 acres of farmland in the Midwest alone, no inspection regime could fully guarantee safety and security,” the report found.

    Dr. Thomas McGinn, assistant state veterinarian at the North Carolina Department of Agriculture, told an agro-terrorism panel convened by the National Governors Association in February that people need to start thinking of animal health as part of public health. North Carolina, he says, is in the process of creating a multi-hazard threat database that links the two.

    Displaying a U.S. map that shows the distribution of poultry and cloven-footed livestock across the country—a blur of dots that illustrates just how dispersed the agricultural animal population is—McGinn says, “This looks like a big bull’s-eye to me.”

    “We have food safety. We’ve got to get ourselves to a place where we have food security as well,” he says.
    A positive attitude may not solve all your problems, but it will annoy enough people to make it worth the effort.

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