Before 9/11,"agroterrorism" was not a familiar term to many.
But in the post-9/11 era, the possibility of a deliberate attack on our food supply is something government, law enforcement and private industry have been studying carefully.
Dr. Peter Chalk of the Rand Corporation, a political scientist and expert on international terrorism, has written extensively on the issue of agroterrorism.
He says there's never been an intentional attack on our plant or livestock production, but we ignore the possibilities at our own risk.
Chalk: "There has never been a bone fide act of terrorism that specifically targeted agriculture or livestock, but we have had instances of terrorists contaminating the food chain," Chalk said. "One of the most notable occurred here in the US in the 1984 when the the Rajneeshee Cult in Oregon poisoned salad food bars with salmonella to influence local election results."
Laura Ziegler: "In response to 9/11, The Bioterrorism Act of 2002 was passed, and that put in place a number of provisions designed to protect our food supply. The 'registry of imports' was one, the idea being if we had a better handle on where and when imports come in, we might have a better handle on whether or not they might be a risk.
Chalk: "That goes on the basis you can essentially protect the institutional borders. We have not really had concerted measures that have been instituted that provide in-country surveillance of food items. You can't really provide anywhere near 100 percent blanket security, it's just impossible," Chalk said.
Ziegler: "Are we safer today than we were 20 years ago?"
Chalk: "Not necessarily, no. We are very vulnerable to a naturally occurring disease outbreak, so any more to protect the food chain can only be to the good. Unfortunately, we react to these contingencies rather than be proactive. One only has to look at the implications of the [Foot and Mouth Disease] in the UK to see just how much enormous economic damage can be instituted."
Ziegler: "I want to play a clip of tape here from (Dr.) Jerry Jaax, a Vice-Provost for Research at K-State, and he's talking about just that - Foot and Mouth Disease.
Jaax: "Tremendously contagious. You know its available in Asia, South America, and it's not like many of the other, what you'd call 'threat pathogens,' that require some kind of special weaponization or some scientific magic that goes into preparing them to be used as a bioterrorist agent. So someone who had very little savvy could very effectively use it as a potential weapon."
Chalk: "The thing about Foot and Mouth, well 2 things, one, (it's) non -contagious to human beings, so no risk at all of accidental infections. Essentially(that)means the perpetrator doesn't have to have access to personal protective equipment. The other aspect of Foot and Mouth, essentially (you)just have to introduce the disease to an animal,(and) because of the virulent nature of Foot and Mouth,(it) will spread naturally. (The)other aspect is it will mimic other diseases, so by the time it is conclusively identified as FMD, it may well have spread, as models have projected, to 25 states."
Ziegler: "You've said after 9/11, we began to carefully to monitor our infrastructure - transportation and telecommunication- but that we neglected agriculture to some degree. I want to play you a clip of tape here of then Secretary of Agriculture, Mike Johanns, who said this about the risk of agrotrerrorism:"
Michael Johanns:"We don't station the National Guard at every feedlot, so the reality is that you could look at any area of the food chain and understand there is risk there. That's why we have to step up our preparation. We have to be able to not only be able to think about prevention but what DO we do in the event there would be a problem?"
Ziegler: "How would you assess our progress so far? Where are we most vulnerable? Have we come far enough in addressing this concern of harm to our food supply?"
Chalk: "We've made certain steps. There's certainly been an increased awareness of vulnerability of the food chain. There are standards put in place that are attempting to streamline and standardize surveillance and biosecurity at food processing plants. The problem is(there is a)lack of resources to enforce those protocols. And when comes to responding to major outbreaks of animal diseases, I still think we've got a very long way to go."