Fear in your Food

The following article was published in the New York Post, January 7, 2017:

FEAR in your FOOD: It’s alarmingly easy for terrorists to contaminate our food supply, by Hank Parker


Back in 1984, in a rural town near Portland, Ore., a woman lurked by a salad bar at a restaurant with a plastic bag in her hands. After checking that no-one was looking, she opened the bag and emptied a brownish liquid over the food.

Her act began the first — and worst — case of bioterrorism in US history. Investigators ultimately determined that the woman and her associates had contaminated 10 salad bars in town with a strain of salmonella bacteria, giving 751 patrons nausea, diarrhea, bloody stools, fever, and other symptoms of severe food poisoning. (Fortunately, no one died.)

Most Americans take their nutrition for granted. Our population of 318 million largely enjoys safe, abundant, and affordable food, produced on two million highly efficient US farms. But our food and agriculture system, which accounts for 20 percent of US jobs, is highly vulnerable to agroterrorism — deliberate acts to damage or disrupt the food supply to inflict terror, advance an ideology, or cause economic havoc. Perpetrators may be rogue nations, terrorist groups, or other organizations with extremist views— the Oregon attack was carried out by a religious cult, in an effort to influence local elections by keeping voters from the polls.

Agroterrorism has a long and disturbing history, dating back at least to ancient Greece and Rome. So far, there have been very few documented large-scale incidents in the United States, but we know that organizations like Al Qaeda have considered striking US agriculture — an attack that would be distressingly easy to conduct and is imagined in my new bioterror novel “Containment.” Our farms are mostly unprotected soft targets, with large numbers of undocumented or transient workers presenting a challenge for close monitoring, and few vaccines are available for farm animals.

Terrorists could employ chemicals or explosives to accomplish their goals, but our livestock, crops, and foods are especially vulnerable to biological agents. Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) is particularly concerning — a malefactor need only lean over an unguarded farm fence to deliberately infect livestock with a swab of the virus. This viral affliction of cloven-hoofed livestock like cattle, sheep, and pigs is seldom lethal — and it doesn’t harm people — but it sickens affected animals, making them unsellable, including for the lucrative export market. The US hasn’t had a case of FMD since 1929; we’ve worked hard to keep it away. But if it were deliberately introduced, it would be very difficult to contain: The responsible virus is among the most contagious pathogens on earth; effective vaccines are in early stages of development, infected animals may not show symptoms for days, and livestock and their products move rapidly and freely within our borders. So by the time an outbreak is detected, the entire country could be affected.

Consider what happened when FMD broke out in England in 2001. By the time it was finally contained, authorities were forced to slaughter over six million livestock, the nation endured economic losses of some $15 billion, and citizens suffered social and emotional trauma that persists to this day. While the UK FMD outbreak was not an act of agroterrorism, it could have been. And if something like this were to occur in the US, the consequences could far exceed those of the UK outbreak.

The threat of FMD keeps our homeland protectors awake at night but an even more terrifying possibility looms: the deliberate infection of animals with zoonoses — diseases that can be transmitted from the animals to humans, either directly or via an insect such as a mosquito or tick. Familiar examples include Lyme Disease, rabies, Ebola, and certain strains of influenza. What’s particularly worrisome is that some zoonotic diseases don’t show symptoms in infected animals but can be deadly to people.

The paucity of agroterrorism events to date suggests that the risk to the US is small, and recent history shows that terrorist attacks are far more likely to be more spectacular events like mass shootings. But deliberate disruption to our agriculture should concern all of us. As former Secretary of Health and Human Services, Tommy Thompson, said in 2004: “For the life of me, I cannot understand why the terrorists have not attacked our food supply, because it is so easy to do.”

Fortunately, since Thompson’s statement, the US has made substantial progress in food defense including beefed up security at facilities, improved employee training, and new mechanisms that allow for careful tracking of animals, products, pathogens, and diseases.

Such measures have significantly decreased the threat of intentional assaults on our food system, and have improved our ability to respond to an incident with fortitude and resilience. But we still remain vulnerable. While the probability of agroterrorism may be low, the consequences could be catastrophic. Our biggest challenge is national complacency. We must remain vigilant and prepared.

Hank Parker, Ph.D., is an adjunct professor at the Georgetown University Medical Center where he teaches a course on biological threats to food and agriculture. He formerly served as a research manager and Acting Director of Homeland Security for the Agricultural Research Service of USDA. His debut novel, “Containment” (Touchstone), a bioterror thriller, is out Tuesday.

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