It sounds like the plot of a Hollywood blockbuster. Villains in trench coats scheme ways to cause the most destruction and chaos. They settle on a food company, an easy target, and plan to lace the products with a chemical or pathogen. The hero finds out the plan with enough time to save the day.
The movie plot might not be so far off from a possible reality, at least if scenarios thought up by American regulators come true. Under new proposed rules from the Food and Drug Administration, food processors and manufacturers – both domestic and companies abroad that ship food to the U.S. – would need to take steps to mitigate a potential terrorist attack.
Few documented incidents of malicious food contamination exist, though, which raises the question: Is food terrorism fact or fiction?
In the wake of Sept. 11, the U.S. government spent years, and billions of dollars, fortifying various industries against possible terrorist attacks. And since then, the United States has seen its fair share of terrorist attacks, the latest major one being the April 2013 bombing at the Boston Marathon finish line. But the food system has remained relatively untouched. We haven’t seen a large-scale bioterror attack on American soil.
“But it has happened on a small-scale, and we’ve certainly studied it since 9/11 to assess what the potential impacts might be and they can be catastrophic,” said Don Kraemer, deputy director of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.
The FDA rules focus on weak links in food processing and manufacturing in an attempt to ferret out where the vulnerabilities exist. The rules mostly apply to facilities in charge of bulk storage or handling of liquids for human consumption, or facilities where secondary ingredients are kept for later use. They’re looking at things like dairy plants where lots of milk is stored in vats or industrial scale bakeries where several ingredients are mixed together.
“A lot of food processing manufacturers don’t practice rigid biosecurity,” said Peter Chalk, a terrorism analyst with the RAND Corporation, a policy think tank.
Many food companies fail to take even the most basic precaution, Chalk said. Owners don’t padlock warehouses or engage in sufficient surveillance. Or they hire a lot of transient workers without performing background checks.
“So actually introducing a contaminant -- salmonella, botulism, mercury -- into the food chain would not be particularly difficult,” Chalk said.
The weak links, though, haven’t really been tested. The last big bioterror attack in the U.S. happened in 1984 in The Dalles, Ore. Cult members infected salad bars with salmonella and more than 700 people were sickened. Since then, the American food system has grappled more with unintentional outbreaks, like the listeria-laden cantaloupe that killed 33 people in 2011.
Would the FDA’s proposed rules keep us safe? Chalk says the vulnerability to attack goes well beyond what’s covered in the proposal.
Producers could be at risk as well. It would be relatively easy to deal a devastating blow to the country’s livestock industry with a virus in a vial. An act of agroterrorism like that keeps some food experts up at night.
If a terrorist wanted to deal a devastating economic blow to the U.S., all it would take is a calculated release of foot-and-mouth disease on the nation’s livestock. Unintentional outbreaks in Europe and South America have haunted economies there, as trade is shut down and whole herds are culled to quarantine the disease.
The specter of foot-and-mouth disease hangs over American ranchers and the impact of an outbreak could be huge. A risk assessment report developed to study a planned Kansas biosecurity laboratory showed that if a pathogen like foot-and-mouth disease escaped, total damage could be upwards of $50 billion. Exports and trade could be cut off and consumer demand would likely take a huge hit.
When U.S. troops raided an al-Qaeda storehouse in Afghanistan in 2002, they found documents detailing ways to attack American agriculture in order to deal a blow to the U.S. economy. Still, no attack has materialized in the 12 years since then.
“Agriculture is critical infrastructure in a country,” said Keith Roehr, Colorado’s state veterinarian. “How would we eradicate the disease? We don’t know. We have plans. We know there would be steps we would take. Do we know exactly what this would be? No we don’t.”
Few livestock owners consider their operations targets of terrorism, Roehr said. And that mindset could leave them vulnerable.
Experts suspect that the bigger reason the U.S. has avoided a large-scale attack on food and farmers is that an attack like that doesn’t carry the same weight as a suicide bomb or shooting.
“This type of supposed terrorist activity is too dry,” Chalk said. “It lacks blood. It lacks a visible point for the media to latch onto, for the exception with the possible images of burning cows. Really, it doesn’t have the same blood lust appeal of carrying out a suicide attack in a shopping mall.”
Even though an attack has yet to materialize, the FDA is hoping its new rules will spur large segments of the food industry to consider the risk. Because while you can’t eliminate all potential for terrorism in the food system, government regulators are prodding businesses to create a plan in the event that what seems a grisly fiction turns into reality.