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U.S. News
'Agroterrorism' poses devastating threat

Easy to plot, experts warn

Friday, May 23, 2003

By Michael Woods, Post-Gazette National Bureau

WASHINGTON -- The federal government has recently classified several scientific studies that show that the U.S. food supply is highly vulnerable to potentially devastating terrorist attack, experts said yesterday at the annual meeting of the American Society for Microbiology.

In some cases, making the studies secret has hindered efforts to inform farm and food companies about the security gaps and how they might better protect the food supply, the scientists said.

In a session on "agroterrorism" -- attacks against farm crops, livestock, produce or packaged foods -- speakers agreed that the U.S. food supply may be more vulnerable than skyscrapers, bridges, nuclear power plants or other high-profile infrastructure targets. A major agroterror attack might produce substantially greater economic damage, they said.

"It is very easy to do," explained Dr. J. C. Hunter-Cevera of the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute in Baltimore. "You don't have to be a rocket scientist."

"Low-tech, high-impact," added Dr. R. James Cook of Washington State University in Pullman.

"These are targets of opportunity," said Dr. Joseph F. Annelli of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, noting that the country's 2 million farms extend over 1 billion acres of land. "There are a lot of unprotected farms out there that you could simply walk up to."

Agroterrorists could release damaging insects, viruses, bacteria, fungi or other microbes aimed at wiping out crops. They also could attempt to poison processed foods. Yet agroterrorism has largely been ignored in terrorist threat assessments, the scientists said.

Disease-causing microbes -- such as foot-and-mouth disease -- are readily available in countries where they naturally infect crops or livestock. They can be "weaponized" easily, in some cases by simply walking onto a farm with contaminated shoes. Such an attack might be confused with a natural outbreak of disease, making it difficult to detect while providing a terrorist with plenty of time to spread microbes elsewhere and escape.

Most agents suitable for agroterror infect only plants or livestock, so they would pose no hazard to terrorists. Successful attacks could trigger quarantines, food shipment cutoffs, destruction of exposed animals, public panic and huge losses to the $230 billion-a-year American agriculture industry.

Dr. Robert E. Brackett of the Food and Drug Administration said "many" government studies of the agroterrorism threat have been classified by the Department of Homeland Security. Among them are two major FDA investigations that revealed "a lot of vulnerabilities" in the food supply. "Very interesting results," Brackett said, declining to elaborate.

As a result of the secrecy, FDA officials are finding it "very difficult" to work with the food industry to close the security gaps, Brackett said.

Yet revealing the vulnerabilities, he said, carries the risk that terrorists could obtain the information.

Cook said the Homeland Security Department classified an entire chapter in a major agroterrorism study completed last year by the National Academy of Sciences. That study found that agroterrorism poses a major threat to U.S. agriculture, and it questioned the country's ability to protect itself or respond to attack.

Michael Woods can be reached at mwoods@nationalpress.com or 1-202-662-7072.

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