Targets for Terrorism: Food and Agriculture

Targets for Terrorism: Food and Agriculture

Last updated January 1, 2006 7:00 am (EST)

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Is America’s food supply safe from terrorist attacks?

No. The United States spends more than $1 billion every year to keep America’s food supply safe, but even without terrorism, food-borne diseases cause about 5,000 deaths and 325,000 hospitalizations each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Former Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson told a congressional terrorism panel in November 2001 that he was “particularly concerned” about food-related terrorism, which could involve either attempts to introduce poisons into the food supply or attacks that would ruin domestically cultivated crops or livestock.

Have there been past terrorist attacks in the United States involving food?

Yes. In 1984, members of an Oregon religious commune—followers of an Indian-born guru named Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh—tried to influence a local election by poisoning salad bars with salmonella bacteria to sicken voters. Although no one died, 751 people became ill. There have been a couple of other attempts to deliberately contaminate food with biological agents since World War II, but these have been criminal acts, not terrorism.

There have been no documented terrorist attacks on U.S. agriculture. But the number and variety of food-borne illnesses and crop and livestock diseases make it hard to distinguish terrorist attacks from natural events. It took a year for U.S. officials to conclude that the Oregon attack was deliberate.

How might terrorists attack the food supply?

The Oregon attack took place at local restaurants, near the end of the food-distribution chain, but an attack could occur at any point between farm and table. Imported food could be tainted with biological or chemical agents before entering the United States, or toxins could be introduced at a domestic food-processing plant. Crops or livestock raised on American soil could also be targeted. Experts also worry that terrorists might try to spread false rumors about unsafe foods via the mass media or the Internet.

How much damage could an attack on the U.S. food supply cause?

Some attacks could cause illnesses and deaths, depending upon how quickly the contamination was detected. But even attacks that don’t directly affect human health could cause panic, undermine the economy, and even erode confidence in the U.S. government, experts say. Agriculture exports amount to about $140 billion a year, and many American jobs have at least an indirect connection to food and agriculture. A 1970s plot by Palestinian terrorists to inject mercury into Jaffa oranges reduced Israel’s exports of citrus fruit to Europe by 40 percent, and a 1989 incident in which a shipment of Chilean grapes to the United States tested positive for cyanide led to international trade suspensions that cost Chile $200 million. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that an attack on livestock—a successful attempt to infect American cattle with a contagious disease such as foot-and-mouth, for example—could cause between $10 billion and $30 billion in damage to the U.S. economy.

What kinds of terrorists might mount a food-related attack?

We don’t know. Concerns about such attacks have grown since September 11. Some forms of attack wouldn’t require a large or highly skilled organization and could come from foreign groups like Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network, domestic terrorists, eco-terrorists, a cult-like group such as Oregon’s Rajneeshees, or an unaffiliated individual—anyone who wanted to undermine the economy and spread panic. Elsewhere, groups that have threatened agroterrorist attacks include Tamil militants in Sri Lanka and British activists opposed to chemical and biological warfare.

Who is in charge of food safety?

The two main agencies are the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which is part of the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), a part of the Department of Agriculture. The FSIS handles meat, poultry, and egg inspections, and the FDA inspects everything else. State and local agencies, other federal bodies, and foreign inspection services are also sometimes involved in food safety.

Many experts have long favored consolidating food-safety programs in a single agency, and calls for a consolidation have been repeated since September 11. But food manufacturers and some members of Congress have grown accustomed to the current system and oppose its overhaul.

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