Until recently, the US government gave a low priority to the risk of a biological terrorist attack on the nation's food supply.
Fortunately, that neglect of "agroterrorism" is changing quickly - and for good reason.
Trying to shake American lethargy, former Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson left his post last December with a sober warning: "I, for the life of me, cannot understand why the terrorists have not, you know, attacked our food supply, because it is so easy to do."
True, the Bioterrorism Preparedness Act of 2002 has some provisions on agroterror. But it was not until late 2003 that the first major congressional hearing devoted solely to this subject was held - and January 2004 before a critical presidential directive on food security kicked into gear. Now, after a slow start, the US is taking notable steps to protect this soft target.
At the first-ever international conference on agroterrorism in Kansas City in May, FBI Director Robert Mueller noted that federal departments and agencies, including the FBI, CIA, US Department of Agriculture (USDA), Food and Drug Administration, and Department of Defense now meet regularly to identify threats and develop responses to agroterror.
"We know that members of Al Qaeda have studied our agriculture industry," Mr. Mueller remarked with candor. Others note that 9/11 hijackers were investigating crop-dusting planes.
With agriculture making up 13 percent of the economy and 18 percent of employment, the devastating results of an agroterror attack could go far beyond human casualties and include an economic crisis and a loss of confidence in government. Even a false alarm over agroterrorism can prove costly. Some may recall the 1989 Chilean grape scare: A terror group phoned the US embassy in Chile claiming cyanide was in that country's grapes. The cost was an entire crop of Chilean fruit and about $200 million in lost revenue.
Lately, a bumper crop of signs show agroterror is now being taken more seriously.
Last month, the Bush administration announced a "strategic partnership" that will send public health and homeland security experts to each state to help pinpoint vulnerabilities in the agriculture and food sectors. Funding at USDA for research and other efforts to counter agro-terrorism doubled in the first two years after 9/11. The USDA has coordinators to develop emergency response plans. And in June, food importers were required to give prior notice of their shipments.
But the US still lacks sufficient veterinarians to recognize foreign animal disease; and the ability to rapidly diagnose and treat the problem with vaccines is limited, the General Accountability Office (GAO) noted in a March report. Also missing is an honest reassessment of the physical processes and management of concentrated animal feeding operations.
The meat industry's profitable practice of breeding and rearing livestock and poultry in highly concentrated settings - with massive feed lot operations - can make the nation a "vulnerable target," the GAO wrote.
Between 80 and 90 percent of grain-fed beef cattle is concentrated in under 5 percent of the nation's feed lots, the GAO found. Introduction of an animal disease into even a single feed lot "could have serious economic consequences," the investigative agency wrote. The Congressional Research Service last year came to a similar conclusion.
If, as seems likely, concentrated animal feeding and processing leaves the nation and meat industry at risk, then along with calls for more attention to faster response times, vaccines, and disease diagnoses should come study of structural and process issues in animal operations that make the US food supply vulnerable.
What needs to be determined is the risk-cost trade-off, because substantially changing something so fundamental as the centralized processing of animals could be hugely disruptive. Distributing livestock into smaller groups, for instance, or slowing the pace of transporting animals to better test them might reduce the risk of a bio-attack, but could prove prohibitively expensive. Such big-picture questions need to be raised, but also assessed for their practicality.