The sight of FBI agents serving search warrants on two California produce companies was unsettling, but perhaps predictable given the widespread media attention that attended the E. coli outbreak in spinach this fall.

The E. coli outbreak “captured the public’s attention even without a terrorist nexus,” said Deputy FBI Director John Pistole at the International Symposium on Agroterrorism held in late September. A terrorist tie, he said, would have made it even more devastating. 

The American consumer demands 100 percent safe food, 100 percent of the time.  Even the threat of tampering could have a significant psychological effect. As speaker after speaker at the FBI symposium pointed out, an attack on the food supply would undermine consumer confidence, leading to severe economic consequences.

A terrorist attack on the food supply, while not imminent, is still within the realm of possibility.

Improbable target?

If the terrorists have achieved any track record to date, it is that they like events that involve explosions and mass casualties in the civilian population. It is doubtful they could achieve the same sense of drama by contaminating spinach with E. coli or releasing a biological agent at a dairy farm. 

Regarding a possible attack on the dairy industry, some might scoff at the idea of killing cows, points out Jerry Jaax, associate vice provost for research and compliance at KansasStateUniversity. But it’s not about killing cows; it’s about economics.

An attack on agriculture would fundamentally be an attack on the U.S. economy.  “These would be economic weapons that would assault our economic security and infrastructure,” Jaax says.

Agriculture is a $1.24 trillion business, representing one-tenth of the U.S. gross domestic product of $12 trillion. One in six jobs is directly or indirectly related to agriculture.

Some would say the threat to agriculture is low because terrorists like explosive activities, but the improbable can happen, says Barry Erlick, president of BJE Associates, a firm that consults with the USDA, Department of Homeland Security and other government agencies on biological threats.

It’s happened before

Certain countries have developed biological-warfare programs specifically directed against agriculture. The former Soviet Union began developing anti-agricultural biological weapons in the late 1940 or early 1950s. Run by Soviet Union’s Ministry of Agriculture, the program targeted both livestock and crops. Anti-livestock weapons included foot-and-mouth disease, rinderpest and African swine fever. By the early 1990s, the Soviet Union had abandoned its anti-agricultural biological weapons program because it no longer deemed them useful in a global-war scenario, according to an article in the January 1999 Annuals of the New York Academy of Sciences written by Kenneth Alibek. (Alibek was formerly Kanatjan Alibekov, who developed biological weapons for the Soviet Union from 1975 to 1991.)

Alibek also points out:

  • The weapons were once attractive enough to the Soviet Union that it spent considerable funds to develop them.
  • Anti-agricultural weapons are still suitable for terrorist use and particularly for disrupting a target country’s economy.
  • Simple techniques exist for the production of these weapons, which could be adapted for use by terrorist groups.

Here, in the United States, there have been only a few cases involving intentional adulteration of the food supply. In the summer of 1984, the Rajneeshee religious cult in Oregon spiked the salad bars at several restaurants with Salmonella typhimurium, which sickened 751 people. “It wasn’t a small outbreak,” says Donald Kautter, general health scientist with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. A more virulent strain of S. typhimurium could have resulted in people dying.   

Extremely soft target

“In comparison to using biological agents against human beings, agriculture is an extremely soft target,” says Peter Chalk, terrorism analyst with the RAND Corporation.

Farms present an easy target for terrorists because they lie in remote areas with easy access. Often, there are large concentrations of animals on these farms, and the animals have little resistance or immunity to foreign-animal diseases.  

Some contagious agents, such as foot-and-mouth disease, could be delivered fairly easily -— in a low-tech or even no-tech manner. They wouldn’t require any special coding or mechanization to make them effective as weapons. “Handling those diseases can be done by anyone, essentially,” Chalk says. 

So, the vulnerability of the food supply and the capabilities of terrorists to carry out an attack are there, Chalk says. But what about intent?

At the first FBI agroterrorism symposium held in May 2005, FBI Director Robert Mueller said, “We know that members of al-Qaeda have studied our agriculture industry.” Captured al-Qaeda documents bear this out.  

Speaker after speaker at the 2005 symposium, as well as the one this year, mentioned the devastating economic consequences an attack could bring.  

Look at the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in Britian in 2001. More than 6.2 million animals were slaughtered, including 5.05 million sheep, 757,000 cattle and 428,000 pigs. The cost was approximately 5 billion English pounds, including money spent on slaughter, compensation to farmers and the impact on tourism. (In U.S. dollars, that would be equivalent to $7.25 billion, using the average exchange rate — $1.45 English pound to $1 U.S. dollar — prevalent in 2001.)

“When you take all three things — vulnerability, capability and intent — into account, agriculture would seem to be a viable target for terrorists,” Chalk points out.

So, why hasn’t it happened yet? Perhaps the terrorists wouldn’t generate as much shock and fear by contaminating a farm as they would by crashing airplanes into high-rise buildings or introducing suicide bombers onto trains. Yet, agroterrorism could be a secondary form of aggression to amplify a primary form of terrorism, Chalk says.

Ongoing threat

Currently, there is no “specific communicated threat” against agriculture, Deputy FBI Director John Pistole told those attending the agroterrorism symposium this September. But that doesn’t mean there is a complete absence of a threat, either.

“Our vulnerabilities are many,” Pistole says. 

Shortly after the E. coli outbreak in spinach began to unfold, the Cable News Network (CNN) aired a report entitled “Food: A Terror Target?” by correspondent Ted Rowlands. It looked at some of the vulnerabilities of crops in central California. A food-safety analyst said there are “lots of opportunities for contamination to take place.”

The terrorists already know this. It’s time for you and your fellow dairy producers to start thinking about it, as well, and taking appropriate measures.

Your best defense: Vigilance

As speaker after speaker detailed the possible threat posed by agroterrorism, it became apparent at the recent International Symposium on Agroterrorism, sponsored by the FBI, that there is little an individual ag producer can do except remain vigilant.

  • Instruct employees to watch for suspicious activity.
  • Report any suspicious activity to law-enforcement officials.

In addition, it would be a good idea to post signs around your farm letting outsiders know that your farm is “restricted access” and you “report all suspicious activity.”