Nation's Food Supply Needs Protection

A wheat fungus apparently carried by the wind. Botulism introduced at a cannery. Salmonella slathered on meat at a slaughterhouse.

It's called agroterrorism — biological warfare by poisoning a nation's food supply.

Americans like to think their food supply is safe. But a panel of terrorism experts recently concluded that it probably isn't.

"Even if we did bolster border control and inspect 99.9 percent of all the products coming in ... you still may not be able to stop a terrorist carrying a vial of some agricultural agent through the U.S. border," said Jennifer Kuzma of the National Research Council.

The council released a report last week identifying weak points in the nation's food supply.

"A lot of these agents and diseases transverse species and intra-species boundaries," Kuzma said.

The report's findings were so sensitive that the U.S. Department of Agriculture wanted the entire report to be classified.

Instead, a panel simply deleted Chapter 2 because, they admit, it amounted to a blue print for disaster — telling terrorists the best targets and threats for an attack on U.S. agriculture.

"We are convinced that this report will increase our security by helping to inform and assist the nation in improving its awareness, capabilities, and plans to defend against threats of agricultural bioterrorism," says the forward of the report.

"Biological agents that could be used to harm crops or livestock are widely available and pose a major threat to U.S. agriculture," said Harley Moon, chair of the committee that wrote the report and a veterinary medicine professor.

Mad Cow disease, camel pox and salmonella poisoning are types of food-borne illnesses that can be difficult to diagnose, tough to track and almost impossible to control.

The foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in Great Britain infected just 2,000 animals, but forced the burning of 4 million livestock and cost billions of dollars.

Because a single vial of such highly contagious diseases can paralyze a community, experts call agroterrorism a low-tech, high-impact warfare.

"There are some agents that do not pose a human health threat, but cause us to lose confidence in our food supply, and more importantly, have devastating economic consequences," Kuzma said.

The concern stems from the fact that the harmful organisms are simpler to produce and easier to obtain than chemical or nuclear materials. The pathogens cost little or nothing to produce and are easy to conceal. But any outbreak can be fatal.

The council concluded that as of last spring, there was no publicly available national plan to defend against international bioterrorism and that "significant gaps exists in U.S. knowledge about foreign pests and pathogens."

Each federal and state agency must have a role to play in the event of such terrorism, the report recommends, and agencies should develop a list of biological agents that could be used in such an attack and what the targets would be.

Credible spokespersons are also needed and potential attack scenarios should be developed for training, the report says.

The U.S. also should create a network of laboratories to coordinate the detection of bioterror agents in the event of an attack, the report says, and new technologies could help in the effort.

The National Academies, the parent organization of the research council, briefed the White House Office of Homeland Security and Department of Agriculture earlier this year on the report's preliminary findings.

The group said that because the government has known about the dangers for some time, it is possible steps have already been taken to act on the recommendations.