TAINTED-the threat of agroterrorism
By: Jim Erickson
The terrorist attacks of 9/11 provided clear evidence that America was vulnerable. The result was a close examination of how to safeguard potential targets, including critical infrastructure elements such as transportation, telecommunications and other utilities.
But what about food?
Initially, comparatively little of that attention was focused on the one area that everyone depends on daily – the agriculture and food industries.
Yet, an article in the FBI Bulletin (February 2012) shares a startling fact: “When American and allied forces overran al Qaeda sanctuaries in the caves of eastern Afghanistan in 2002, among the thousands of documents they discovered were U.S. agricultural documents and al Qaeda training manuals targeting agriculture.”
Bill Dorsey, weapons of mass destruction coordinator in the St. Louis FBI office, recently met with members of the St. Louis Agribusiness Club and warned that while the risk level may be low, the potential consequences of a terrorist attack on American agriculture and the food system would be high.
Acknowledging that not everyone is familiar with the concept of agroterrorism, Dorsey defined the term as the use or threatened use of chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear or explosive agents against the agricultural/food sector. The goal would be to cause illness, death, economic disruption and fear and to undermine confidence in government.
A kink in the food chain
By their very nature, agriculture and the food sector are vulnerable and probably the least protected of the nation’s infrastructure industries, Dorsey observed.
On one hand, agricultural production is widely disbursed in unsecured environments. At the same time, it’s common for livestock to be concentrated in confined locations, then moved and commingled with others, providing the logistics to spread an animal disease rapidly.
Dorsey offered the example of foot-and-mouth disease, which affects cattle, swine and other cloven-hooved animals. The disease has been eradicated in this country but still is found in South America, Africa, Asia and some parts of Europe. Dorsey said experts have estimated the premeditated introduction of these pathogens on a very small number of farms could result in the spread of the disease to as many as 25 states in a week or less.
Recent cases of food contamination, such as cantaloupes tainted with salmonella, illustrate how a problem on one farm or in a single food processing facility can quickly spread over a multistate area. Not long ago, “mad cow” disease effectively curtailed exports and sent beef prices in a downward spiral.
While none of these events were terrorist-related, the question lingers: Could a terrorist effectively harm America with the release of a few pathogens, or a new type of pest? Could agroterrorism become a weapon of mass destruction?
RAND Corp. thinks so. Its research has concluded: “A major agroterrorist attack would have substantial economic repercussions, especially when allied industries and services – suppliers, transporters, distributors, and restaurant chains – are taken into account. The fiscal downstream effect of a deliberate act of sabotage would be multidimensional, reverberating through other sectors of the economy and ultimately impacting the consumer.”
It’s definitely not a new concept. The Bulletin article notes that Assyrians poisoned enemy wells with rye ergot during sixth century B.C., and German agents in the United States infected horses and cattle in transit across the Atlantic during World War I. A religious cult also intentionally contaminated 10 restaurant salad bars in Oregon with salmonella in 1994, sickening more than 750 people, in an attempt to influence the outcome of a local election. But what about now?
The FBI lists four categories of likely agroterrorism perpetrators:
• transnational groups such as al Qaeda, viewed by many as presenting the most probable threat
• economic opportunists attempting to manipulate the markets for personal gain
• domestic terrorists who want to strike a blow against the federal government
• militant animal rights or environmental activists who could view an attack on the animal food industry as a positive event
A subset of domestic terrorists is the person who may have some idiosyncratic or narcissistic motivation for an act of terrorism. In his Ag Club presentation, Dorsey noted this group causes him as much concern as any other.
Although there are hundreds of animal and plant pathogens and pests potentially available to an agroterrorist, the Congressional Research Service (CRS) says in a report that “perhaps fewer than a couple of dozen represent significant economic threats.”
Because plant pathogens continue to exist and infect plants in small areas each year, unleashing a bioweapon via plant sources is less likely. Control efforts for managing plant diseases are well established and routine. In addition, plant diseases generally are more technically difficult to manipulate, often requiring environmental conditions of humidity, temperature or wind to become established or spread.
Livestock herds, many experts believe, are far more susceptible. And while it may seem counterintuitive, a primary reason is the success of efforts to systematically eliminate certain diseases from U.S. herds. The result is that current herds are unvaccinated and/or relatively unmonitored for such diseases by farmers and some local veterinarians.
Certain animal diseases such as anthrax also may be more attractive to terrorists because they can be zoonotic, or transmissible to humans.
Dorsey noted that agroterrorism acts also could involve other targets, such as farmers and farm workers, import facilities, food and agricultural transportation operations, food processing, storage and distribution facilities, restaurants and grocery stores.
Containing the risk
“Prevention is a much better option than responding and trying to mitigate what already has happened,” Dorsey said.
Preventive steps that farms and food-related businesses can take include locking gates and otherwise restricting access, inventory control measures, and having a plan and being prepared to implement it if the need arises.
Everyone, Dorsey added, can help by being aware of what’s going on around them and reporting suspicious activity to law enforcement.
He also outlined a number of steps taken by various entities and the private sector to lessen the agroterrorism threat and to deal with any incidents that occur. Among them are:
• the department of Homeland Security (DHS) Centers of Excellence, which include university-based research on zoonotic and animal disease defense
• the Laboratory Response Network, created by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to respond quickly to bio and chemical incidents
• the International Symposium on Agroterrorism, sponsored by the FBI and designed to bring together the best thinking on how to prevent and deal with such terrorism; it has been held every three years since 2005 in Kansas City, with the next one set for 2014
• the Multi-State Partnership for Security in Agriculture – a group of state and federal agency officials in 14 states (including Missouri and Illinois) in the Midwest, Great Plains and Upper Midwest work together on agriculture emergency preparedness and response measures
• InfraGard, a collaborative effort of the FBI, the private sector, academia and other governmental agencies to safeguard key parts of the nation’s infrastructure.
• the Strategic Partnership Program Agroterrorism – a joint effort of the FBI, USDA, DHS and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the organization works with private industry to help secure the nation’s food supply
• the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility near the Kansas State University campus at Manhattan, Kan. As originally proposed, the new operation would replace the aging U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) installation at Plum Island off the eastern tip of Long Island and would fight animal diseases, including those that could be spread by agroterrorists. However, the facility has been subject to on-again, off-again funding decisions by Congress, political bickering and opposition from a local group that includes retired university professors concerned about the possible release of dangerous pathogens in the event of a tornado or other natural disaster. Work on the site has begun but it now appears the original target date of 2015 for having the facility operational will be delayed three years.
New laws and regulations also have been put in place. The Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act contained several provisions important to agriculture. New FDA rules called for registration of food processors, prior notice on imports of food and authority for the agency to detain imported food products under certain conditions.
“Given its ease of execution and low cost to high benefit ratio, agroterrorism fits the evolving strategy (of terrorist groups) that focuses on inexpensive but highly disruptive attacks in lieu of monumental ones. Agroterrorism (also) could exacerbate the social upheaval caused by random bombings,” the FBI Bulletin concludes.
“The speed of detecting and diagnosing a terrorist act and controlling its impact can spell the difference between an isolated incident and a disaster,” Dorsey said.