Increased awareness of 'agroterrorism' post 9/11

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Reporter / KCUR

Laura Ziegler is a reporter at KCUR in Kansas City, Mo.

Before 9/11, “agroterrorism” was an unfamiliar term.

But in the post 9/11 era, the possibility of a deliberate terrorist attack on our food supply has been studied carefully by government, law enforcement and private industry.

Peter Chalk, a senior political scientist with the Rand Corporation, has been studying and writing about agroterrorism. He recently spoke with Harvest Public Media’s Laura Ziegler, who asked if the American public is safer now than it was ten years ago.

Here is a transcript of their discussion:

Peter Chalk: There has never been a bona fide act of terrorism that specifically targeted agriculture or livestock, but we have had instances of terrorists contaminating the food chain.  One of the most notable occurred here in the U.S. in the 1984 when the the Rajneeshee Cult in Oregon poisoned salad food bars with salmonella to influence local election results.

Laura Ziegler: In response to 9/11, the Bioterrorism Act of 2002 was passed, and that put in place a number of provisions designed to protect our food supply. "The registry of imports" (was one), the idea being if we had a better handle on where and when imports  come in, we might have a better handle on whether  or not they might be a risk.  Has it been effective?

Chalk: That goes on the basis you can essentially protect the institutional borders.  We have not really had concerted measures that have been instituted that provide in-country surveillance of food items. You can’t really provide anywhere near 100 percent blanket security, it’s just impossible.

Ziegler: Are we safer than we were 10 years ago?

Chalk: I would say not necessarily, no.  We are very vulnerable to a naturally-occurring disease outbreak, so any more to protect the food chain can only be to the good.  Unfortunately, we react to these contingencies rather than be proactive. One only has to look at the implications of the FMD (foot-and-mouth disease outbreak ) in the UK to see just how much enormous economic damage can be instituted.

Ziegler: I want to play a clip of tape here from Jerry Jaax, the K-State Vice Provost for Research,  and he’s talking about just that,  foot-and-mouth disease.

Dr. Jerry Jaax: Tremendously contagious. You know it’s available in Asia, South America, and it’s not like many of the other what you’d call ‘threat pathogens’  that require some kind of special weaponization or some scientific magic that goes into preparing them to be used as a bioterrorist agent.  So someone who had very little savvy could very effectively use it as a potential weapon.

Chalk: The thing about foot-and-mouth, well, two things, one:  non -contagious to human beings, so no risk at all of accidental infections.  Essentially means the perpetrator doesn’t have to have access to personal protective equipment. The other aspect of foot-and-mouth, essentially just have to introduce the disease to an animal, because of the virulent nature of foot-and-mouth, (it) will spread naturally.  Other aspect is it will mimic other diseases, so by the time it is conclusively identified as FMD, it may well have spread, as models have projected, to 25 states.

Ziegler: You’ve said after 9/11, we began to carefully monitor our infrastructure  -- transportation and telecommunication --  but that we neglected agriculture to some degree.  I want to play you a clip of tape here of then-Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns, who said this about the risk of agrotrerrorism:

Mike Johanns: We don’t station the National Guard at every feedlot, so the reality is that you could look at any area of the food chain and understand there is risk there. That’s why we have to step up our preparation. We have to be able to not only be able to think about prevention but what do we do in the event there would be a problem?

Ziegler: How would you assess our progress so far?  Where are we most vulnerable?  Have we come far enough in addressing this concern of harm to our food supply?

Chalk: We’ve made certain steps.  There’s certainly been an increased awareness of vulnerability of the food chain. There are standards put in place that are attempting to streamline and standardize surveillance and biosecurity at food processing plants. The problem is (a) lack of resources to enforce those protocols.  And when comes to responding to major outbreaks of animal diseases, I still think we’ve got a very long way to go.

For more information, Chalk’s report “Hitting America’s Soft Underbelly: The Potential Threat of Deliberate Biological Attacks Against the U.S. Agricultural and Food Industry” is found here.

The Congressional Research Service’s 2004 report, “Agroterrorism: Threats and Preparedness,” is found here.