U.S. Food Supply Exposed to Terrorists?

This is a partial transcript of "The Big Story With John Gibson," September 19, 2006, that has been edited for clarity.

JOHN GIBSON, HOST: The outbreak of E. coli in America from fresh spinach has just spread to 22 states. Health officials say someone in Colorado has contracted the same strain of bacteria that's killed at least one person and sickened more than 100 others. And investigators are now trying to determine if bad produce killed a toddler in Ohio as well. Twenty-three-month-old Olivia Perkins died in late August from an E. coli infection. Her family believes bad spinach she might have eaten may have been to blame.

Meantime, the feds say there is no evidence anybody tampered with the nation's spinach supply, but my next guest says the crisis exposes yet another hole in our infrastructure, our security. Retired Army Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Peters is with me. He is the author of the new book, "Never Quit the Fight."

So Colonel Peters, I think a lot of us were surprised to find out that if you buy a bag of salad fixings, it essentially all comes from the same place. Is this the reason, you think, it exposes — this story has exposed a vulnerability?

RET. U.S. ARMY LT. COL. RALPH PETERS: Well, yes, indeed. And John, the first thing we have to say is that America's food supply is the safest in the world. It's amazing that we have so few problems, given the massive amounts, the massive difficulties.

But nonetheless, this mini crisis really has highlighted the centralization of food processing, distribution. So you have two dangers. Terrorism is one. I mean, it's usually written off because we say, well, entering the food supply is not a high payoff for terrorists. But it wouldn't be a question of hitting one point. Imagine if they hit a dozen or two dozen crucial nodes in the food processing chain.

This isn't the good old days, when every town and all these corner groceries, and you bought off the — the (inaudible) brought the truck around. Now it's all supermarkets, massive warehouses.

And so disrupting our food chain is a possibility. And my even bigger worry, even bigger than terrorism, is if we ever had a true pandemic, a deadly one like the World War I era influenza epidemic, highly contagious and deadly, the centralization of food supplies could make it very hard to feed people if you had quarantines, if you had disruption of interstate commerce and trucking. Supermarkets...

GIBSON: Colonel, look at this map. I mean, here the spinach all came from one place in San Juan Bautista, California, which is in San Benito, California, just east of Salinas, Monterey. I mean, did that tell people who might want to deal with — or interrupt the food supply or contaminate it, look, all you have got to do is go to one place?

PETERS: Yes, indeed, because of the centralized nature of our food distribution system and supply system, yes, you go to one place and you could have literally a nationwide effect. That's the warning here. And, again, John, imagine if a dozen or two dozen nodes were purposely hit — not just vegetables, but beef, milk — you not only get the real effect of killing people or making them sick, but you get the terror effect. People don't know what's safe to eat. And also, of course, massive economic costs.

So while it doesn't pay to get hysterical and exaggerate this threat, it's something we need to look at soberly and sensitively because it's not a small issue.

GIBSON: We will indeed. Colonel Ralph Peters, retired Army Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Peters, thanks very much.

PETERS: My pleasure.

Content and Programming Copyright 2006 FOX News Network, LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Transcription Copyright 2006 Voxant, Inc. (www.voxant.com), which takes sole responsibility for the accuracy of the transcription. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. No license is granted to the user of this material except for the user's personal or internal use and, in such case, only one copy may be printed, nor shall user use any material for commercial purposes or in any fashion that may infringe upon FOX News Network, LLC'S and Voxant, Inc.'s copyrights or other proprietary rights or interests in the material. This is not a legal transcript for purposes of litigation.