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Placing the Terrorist Threat to the Food Supply in Perspective

12 MINS READApr 22, 2008 | 21:58 GMT
Security Weekly
By Fred Burton and Scott Stewart High food prices have sparked a great deal of unrest over the past few weeks. Indeed, the skyrocketing cost of food staples like grain has caused protests involving thousands of people in places such as South Africa, Egypt and Pakistan. These protests turned deadly in Haiti and even led to the ouster of Prime Minister Jacques-Edouard Alexis. With global food supplies already tight, many people have begun once again to think (and perhaps even worry) about threats to the U.S. agricultural system and the impact such threats could have on the U.S. — and global — food supply. In light of this, it is instructive to examine some of these threats and attempt to place them in perspective.

A Breakdown of Potential Threats

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, there have been many reports issued by various government and civilian sources warning of the possibility that terrorists could target the U.S. food supply. At the most basic level, threats to a country’s food supply can come in two general forms: attacks designed to create famine and attacks designed to directly poison people. Attacks designed to create famine would entail the use of some agent intended to kill crops or livestock. Such agents could include pathogens, insects or chemicals. The pathogens might include such livestock diseases as Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), commonly called mad cow disease, or hoof-and-mouth disease. Crop diseases such as Ug99 fungus or molds also pose a threat to supplies. Attacks designed to poison people could also be further divided into two general forms: those intended to introduce toxins or pathogens prior to processing and those intended to attack finished food products. Attacks against foodstuffs during agricultural production could include placing an agent on crops in the field or while in transit to a mill or processing center. Attacks against finished foodstuffs would entail covertly placing the toxin or pathogen into the finished food product after processing. It must be noted that an attack against people could also be conducted for the purposes of creating a mass disruption — such action would not be designed to cause mass casualties, but rather to create fear, unrest and mistrust of the government and food supply, or to promote hoarding. In fact, based on historical examples of incidents involving the contamination of food products, such an attack is far more likely to occur than a serious systematic attack on the food supply.

Attack Constraints

While attacks against the food supply may appear simple in theory, they have occurred infrequently and for good reason: When one considers the sheer size of the U.S. agricultural sector, conducting a productive assault proves difficult. As seen by the coca and marijuana eradication efforts by the United States and its partners in Mexico, Central America and the Andes, the logistical effort needed to make any substantial dent in agricultural production is massive. Even the vast resources the United States has dedicated to drug eradication tasks in small countries –- overt plane flights spraying untold thousands of gallons of herbicides for decades — have failed to create more than a limited effect on marijuana and coca crops. Obviously, any sort of meaningful chemical attack on U.S. agriculture would have to be so massive that it is simply not logistically feasible. This is where pathogens — agents that can, at least in theory, be introduced in limited amounts, reproduce and then rapidly spread to infect a far larger area — enter the picture. In order to be effective, however, a pathogen must be one that is easily spread and very deadly and has a long incubation period (in order to ensure it is passed along before the host dies). It is also very helpful to the propagation of a disease if it is difficult to detect and/or difficult to treat. While a pathogen that possesses all of the aforementioned traits could be devastating, finding such an agent is difficult. Few diseases have all the requisite characteristics. Some are very deadly, but act too quickly to be passed, while others are more readily passed but do not have a long incubation period or are not as virulent. Other pathogens, such as the Ug99 wheat fungus, are easy to detect and kill. There is also the problem of mutation, meaning that many pathogens tend to mutate into less virulent actors. It is also important to note that genetically engineering a super bug — one that possess all the characteristics to make it highly effective — is still much harder in real life than it is on television. Even if such an effective pathogen is found, someone intending to use it in an attack must isolate the virulent strain, manufacture it in sufficient quantities to be effective, ship it to the place of the planned attack and then distribute it in a manner whereby it is effectively dispersed. The infrastructure required to undertake such an endeavor is both large and expensive. Even in past cases where groups possessed the vast monetary resources to fund biological weapons efforts and amassed the scientific expertise to attempt such a program — Aum Shinrikyo comes to mind — virulent pathogens have proven very difficult to produce and effectively disperse in large quantities. Another factor making these sorts of attacks difficult to orchestrate is the very nature of farming. For thousands of years, farmers have been battling plant and animal diseases. Most of the pathogens that are mentioned in connection with attacks against agriculture include elements already existing in nature such as hoof-and-mouth disease, H5N1 bird flu or a fungus like Ug99. As a result, farmers and governmental organizations such as the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service have systems in place to monitor crops and animals for signs of pathogens. When these pathogens appear, action is taken and diseased crops are treated or eradicated. Animals are treated or culled. Even in past cases where massive eradication and culling efforts occurred — BSE in the United Kingdom, citrus canker in Florida or the many bird flu outbreaks over the past few years –- the measures have not crippled or affected the country’s agricultural sector or the larger economy. Creating famine and poisoning the food supply are also difficult, given the sheer quantity of agricultural products grown. Applying some sort of toxin before the raw food is processed is difficult, given the volume produced. In fact, much grain is diverted to uses other than human consumption, as when corn is used to produce ethanol or feed livestock. Therefore, if a truckload of corn is poisoned, it might never funnel into the human food chain. Furthermore, even if a truck of contaminated grain were destined for the food chain, by the time it made its way through the process it would likely be too diluted to have any effect. During the production process, contaminated corn would first have to combine with other grain, sit in a silo, be moved and stored again, ground and finally made into a finished food product such as a loaf of cornbread — an unlikely source of poisoning for the end user. Processing, washing, cooking, pasteurizing and refining may all also serve to further dilute, cleanse or damage the pathogen in the targeted product. At this point, food is also inspected for naturally occurring pathogens and toxins. Such inspections could help spot an intentional contamination. Besides, even contaminating one truckload of grain would require a large amount of toxin. Producing that much toxin would require a substantial infrastructure –- one that would require a great deal of time and money to build. Not to mention the difficulty inherent in transporting and delivering the toxin.

Past Attacks Prove Few and Far Between

Actual attacks against food are very rare. And due to the considerations enumerated above, nearly every food attack we are aware of was an attempt to directly poison people and not cause famine. Furthermore, almost all of these attacks involved processed foods or raw foods packaged for human consumption. While people are frequently sickened by pathogens in food such as E. coli or salmonella bacteria, most incidents are not intentional. One of the few known successful attempts at using a biological agent to contaminate food in the United States occurred in 1984 in the small Oregon town of The Dalles. Followers of cult leader Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, attempting to manipulate a local election, infected salad bars in 10 restaurants with Salmonella typhimurium, causing about 751 people to become ill. A second contamination attempt occurred in October 1996, when 12 laboratory workers at a large medical center in Texas experienced severe gastrointestinal illness after eating muffins and doughnuts left in their break room. Laboratory tests revealed that the pastries had been intentionally infected with S. dysenteriae, a pathogen that rarely occurs in the United States. An investigation later determined that the pathogen came from a stock culture kept at the lab. While many people recall the 1989 Chilean grape scare — when two grapes imported to the United States were injected with cyanide — few recall that the perpetrator in the case made several calls to the U.S. Embassy warning of the contamination and was therefore not seriously attempting to harm people, but rather attempting an action designed to draw attention to social injustice in Chile. The warning calls allowed agricultural inspectors to find the damaged and discolored grapes before they were eaten. In a lesser-known case that took place in 1978, a dozen children in the Netherlands and West Germany were hospitalized after eating oranges imported from Israel. The Arab Revolutionary Council, a nom de guerre used by the Abu Nidal Organization, deliberately contaminated the fruit with mercury in an attempt to damage the Israeli economy.

Potential Players and the Public Impact

Such attacks could potentially be conducted by a wide array of actors, ranging from a single mentally disturbed individual on one end of the spectrum to sovereign nations on the other end. Cults and domestic or transnational terrorist groups fall somewhere in the middle. The motivation behind these diverse actors could range from monetary extortion or attempts to commit mass murder to acts of war designed to cripple the U.S. economy or the nation’s ability to project power. Of these actors, however, there are very few who possess the ability to conduct attacks that could have a substantial impact on the U.S. food supply. In fact, most of the actors are only capable of contaminating finished food products. While they all have this rudimentary capability, there is also the question of intent. Documents and manuals found in Afghanistan after the 2001 U.S.-led invasion revealed an al Qaeda interest in conducting chemical and biological attacks, although this interest was not a well-developed program. From a cost-benefit standpoint, it would be much cheaper and easier to use explosives to create disruption than it would be to execute a complicated plot against the food supply. Besides, such a target would not produce the type of spectacular imagery the group enjoys. While we do not foresee any huge attempt by the Russians or Chinese, and food supply is not a part of al Qaeda’s preferred target set, it is possible that a lone wolf or a smaller extremist organization could attempt to conduct such an attack. While any such offensive will likely have limited success, it could have far wider societal repercussions. At the present time, the public has become somewhat accustomed to food scares and recalls over things such as contaminated spinach, ground beef and green onions. Even warnings over lead and other harmful chemicals in food imported from China have caused concern. However, if even a relatively unsuccessful attack on the food supply were conducted by a terrorist group, it could create significant hysteria — especially if the media sensationalized the event. In such a case, even an ineffective terror plot could result in a tremendous amount of panic and economic loss. Perhaps the best recent example of this type of disruptive attack is the 2001 anthrax letter attacks. Although the attacks only claimed the lives of five victims, they caused a huge, disproportionate effect on the collective American and world psyche. The public fears that arose from the anthrax attacks were augmented by extensive media discussions about the use of the agent as a weapon. The public sense of unease was further heightened by the fact that the perpetrator was never identified or apprehended. As a result, countless instances surfaced in which irrational panic caused office buildings, apartment buildings, government offices and factories to be evacuated. Previously ignored piles of drywall dust and the powdered sugar residue left by someone who ate a donut at his desk led to suspicions about terrorists, who suddenly seemed to be lurking around every corner. It did not matter, in the midst of the fear, that the place where the "anthrax" was found could have absolutely no symbolic or strategic value to the Islamist militants that most Americans pictured in their minds. The sense of threat and personal vulnerability was pervasive. In the years since 2001, thousands of hoax anthrax letters have been sent to companies, government offices, schools and politicians in the United States and abroad. Many of these hoaxes have caused psychosomatic responses, resulting in victims being hospitalized, and further economic losses in terms of lost production time, emergency hazmat response costs and laboratory tests. In the end, the most probable attack against the food supply is unlikely to create a significant death toll, but the panic such an attack may evoke can cause repercussions that are far greater than the death toll itself.

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