Agroterrorism: Preventing a Silent Attack

Officials say U.S. agricultural system is an easy target for terrorism, so what can we do about it?

by / November 28, 2007

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

around an area who's not supposed to be there, and are pretty quick to pick up and call whoever's farm it is."

Another concern, according to Howard van Dijk, emergency preparedness coordinator of Clemson University's Cooperative Extension Service, is the spread of contagious diseases that could threaten food safety or cripple agricultural production.

"Foot-and-mouth disease - that's the big one that really has us worried because that would hit cattle of all sorts, and other kinds of hoofed animals," he said. "It's highly contagious, and it would be very difficult to manage, to control, to get on top of."

Because foot-and-mouth disease is a pandemic in certain parts of the world, van Dijk said, all someone would have to do is bring a sample into the U.S. and release it in farms.

In 2002, Tom McGinn, assistant state veterinarian for North Carolina at the time, showed a computer simulation of what would happen if foot-and-mouth disease were deliberately and simultaneously released in five different sites across the country - within two weeks, the disease would have spread to 44 states and destroyed 48.5 million animals.

Also in 2001, McGinn said the United States collected intelligence data in Afghanistan that al Qaeda operatives explored ways of damaging the U.S. food supply.

"There were plans ongoing within those folks about seeing where agriculture of the U.S. was vulnerable," van Dijk said. "They had information there that was wide-open material. It would be knowledge that wouldn't be that hard to acquire."

Taking Responsibility
Knowing this, van Dijk urged farmers and ranchers to take action.

"Install gates to your facility, put up those signs, restricting gates, know who's visiting your farm, be observant, see if there are people you don't know or strange folks coming by asking questions that don't really apply to day-to-day activities," van Dijk said. "Try to upgrade security for everybody - that goes for the whole process, up and down the whole food chain from the producer to the grocery store. The whole system needs to have tightened security everywhere."

Government agencies also must do their part to safeguard food production, Gillespie said.

"Certainly industry has to have a major role because they control [more than] 90 percent of the resources that go into our food systems," he added, "but they can't really do that without support from local, state and federal government agencies. Most certainly that's true as we begin to have a more global food supply. Now it's imperative that our federal, state and local agencies step up and try to improve security for the imported foods and food products."

Finch said he believes it's ultimately agriculture's responsibility to work closely with the state commissioners of agriculture or their counterparts across the nation.

But Jason Moats, program coordinator for the Fire Protection Training Division at Texas A&M's Extension Service, disagreed. Moats, who wrote Agroterrorism: A Guide for First Responders, said an agroterrorism event almost immediately becomes a national-level event.

"It's not accurate to say that it's a farmer or rancher issue. It's going to involve everyone in the community, from the local elected official, to the state veterinarian, to the animal, plant and health inspection service to deal with this," he said. "It's a national-level emergency. That's on the grandest scale."

If, for example, foot-and-mouth disease were introduced into the agriculture system, the disease would affect cattle, sheep, goats, pigs and other animals. International markets would quickly stop receiving food products from the entire U.S., said Moats, because blocking shipments on a regional basis would be difficult.

"The problem is, we have such a highly mobile animal population here in the U.S. that that may not be reasonable," he

said. "So the minimum that the markets are going to shut down is going to be several months, if not several years.

"We're talking a long-term event that may be longer, truthfully, than the recovery is or the immediate recovery was, for the World Trade Center," Moats added.

Practicing Prevention
Unfortunately vulnerabilities in the agriculture system typically are detected only when people fall ill, Gillespie said.

"There are some new technologies beginning to emerge that may help, but the economy of them is pretty difficult - whether producers and even consumers are willing to pay this extra cost is the question," he added. "Probably the most effective way for us to have early detection of mischief or something going wrong is in fact the employees who work very directly with the food system. Again, that's a challenge because there's such a turnover in that particular sector of our economy."

In South Carolina, Clemson University's Cooperative Extension Service helps educate farm producers and the public about potential agroterrorism activities.

"We're trying to help coordinate and organize County Agricultural Response Teams (CARTs)," van Dijk said. "In this case, CARTs are committees of people in the industry, producers, agency people, county emergency manager, law enforcement, fire rescue folks, animal control people. We help organize these committees who then can, on a local level, identify issues that might be for their county, their location."

The county CART falls under the county emergency manager's authority, he said, and considers where the issues are in the county, and helps to educate and manage if an incident takes place. CARTs, van Dijk added, aid in actual response, along with police, fire and emergency management services.

"We have the local knowledge of agriculture, have contact with local producers and know what livestock industries are in the local area, so we know what's involved," he said. "Then we also become members of the county response team to help contain whatever incident might happen."

One thing to keep in mind, van Dijk said, is to look at agroterrorism under the all-hazards umbrella.

"At the same time we're considering agroterrorism, being able to respond also helps in being able to respond to a hurricane disaster, flood - you name it," he said. "Being aware, knowledgeable, educated, and able to respond helps all of those things."

Jessica Jones Editor