On April 25, skin-burning water flowed from the tap in Spencer, Mass., sending 100 people to the hospital and forcing everyone else to avoid their faucets and hoses.

One week after the incident, investigators discovered that two city workers accidentally released an excessive amount of sodium hydroxide, also known as lye, into the water system after they forgot to switch the feed system from manual to automatic.

Thirty-four gallons of sodium hydroxide entered the city's water supply over a 12.5-hour period, from the night of April 24 to the morning of April 25.

In addition, an alarm system for alerting offsite workers to the situation wasn't working properly, and no one was in the building to hear onsite alarms.

Though not an agroterrorism incident, the event shows how easy an attack on the water supply could be, said Robert Finch, emergency preparedness coordinator of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Farm Service Agency in Kentucky.

"Because you've got municipal and public water systems all across the nation, that would demonstrate that it's pretty easy to cause damage," he said, "whether it is intentional or accidental."

Agroterrorism is an intentional criminal act perpetrated on some segment of the agriculture industry or the food system, intended to inflict harm - whether it be a public-health crisis or economic disruption.

"It has an effect, a very heavy effect, on the emotional well-being of people because they take their food as sort of for granted," said Jerry Gillespie, former director and principal investigator at the Western Institute for Food Safety and Security at the University of California at Davis. "So an attack on either agriculture or the food system has all of those potentialities."

Because food from a single source tends to be distributed widely, Gillespie added, contamination at one processing plant can have widespread implications.

"We've learned that, for example, with the spinach outbreak in Salinas County [Calif.], it affected more than 18 states," he said. "So in a very quick order, we can have widespread contaminated product."

Easy Target?

Agriculture in the United States is particularly vulnerable to terrorist activities because it's a very open system, particularly at the farm level, but also in most processing plants, Gillespie said.

"They vary in their security certainly, but it would not be difficult to find access to a processing plant," he said. "There's a huge turnover in a labor force - it's quite easy for someone who wanted to do this to find a way into a processing plant or any segment of a food system. On the retail end, clearly our open markets, farmers' markets and the retail outlets are wide open."

But Brenda Halbrook, director of the Food Safety Unit within the USDA's Food & Nutrition Service, contended that such attacks are growing more difficult. She said a lot of work has been done to close security gaps.

"We have been working since early 2005 to develop our awareness program, and the spinoff from that has been now we're developing tabletop exercises," Halbrook said. "We take a previous scenario and play it out with all of the people who would be the principals if there were to be a real attack. That's another means of trying to lock down any kinds of gaps we might have in this system so everybody's very aware, everyone's practiced, they've written their food defense programs and their plans, and then they've drilled it."

Even without exercises and plans in place, Finch said farmers have their own more basic methods of preventing such an act.

"Farmers have a very good nonscientific, or non-Internet, network of knowing what's going on," he said. "They know what's going on in their area. They know if something's strange or someone is seen

Jessica Jones  |  Editor