Counter-Agroterrorism 101

An “all-hazards approach” to disaster preparedness includes manmade disasters, which in large part are attempts of various forms of aggressors – for example, state-sponsored or non-state actors – to violently destroy life and property. The malicious intent of any aggressor is to undermine a sense of security, destabilize a government’s ability to function, and severely disrupt the economy. All of which is the reason why the protection of critical infrastructure and key resources (CIKR) has been a major focus in the nation’s efforts to prevent aggressors from: (a) successfully executing an attack; and (b) meeting their objectives. The primary focus of current CIKR plans and policies, though, seems to be on securing the nation’s transportation and energy infrastructure – and, by doing so, sometimes neglecting food security (i.e., animal and agriculture).

The U.S. food supply represents a high-risk vulnerability for the entire nation. What is officially referred to as the Food and Agriculture Sector of the U.S. economy – and, therefore, the nation’s food industry as a whole – contributes upward of $1 trillion to the U.S. Gross Domestic Product. In fact, as Agriculture Secretary Thomas Vilsack pointed out in a press release on 1 February 2013, U.S. agricultural exports alone accounted for $478 billion from 2009 through 2012, largely because the United States is one of the dominant producers of the world’s grain supplies.

In addition, as the American Farm Bureau Federation notes on its website, an estimated 15 percent or so of the total U.S. workforce is employed in the food industry, in jobs ranging from animal and agriculture stewardship and processing to selling food products at local markets.

Food – An Easy & Desirable Target 

These statistics demonstrate not only how integral and important the Food and Agriculture Sector is to the nation’s overall economy, but also how attractive the food industries may be as potential targets for terrorist attack. Perhaps less attention has been given to preventing terrorist attacks against the Food and Agricultural Sector because the potential death toll following an attack on any link in the food chain – production, processing, supply, and distribution – would be much less than, for example, a deliberate biological weapons attack in a large metropolitan city. Nonetheless, a successful attack on the nation’s food supply could lead to disastrous economic losses and raise understandable doubt about the nation’s ability to secure its own food supply.

Today, unfortunately, that sector has several exploitable vulnerabilities that make securing the food at each stage an almost impossible task. Production facilities – farms, for example – are widely scattered throughout the nation, are easily accessible by would-be terrorists, and usually have little if any security. In addition, each step within the food production pipeline – from maintaining to processing livestock and/or distributing the food – is highly concentrated, making a large-scale and surreptitious contamination attack much easier to carry out.

During the last quarter of 2012, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recorded on average up to six recalls of food products per day. Most of the recalls were because of unintentional food contamination. Moreover, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website, an estimated 48 million Americans suffer annually from various foodborne illnesses, 128,000 of that number are hospitalized, and 3,000 die.

There have been numerous prominent examples of mass poisonings, both planned or accidental, in recent years – for example, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the salmonella contamination of peanut butter in 2009 infected 714 people nationwide – that not only illustrate how vulnerable the nation’s Food and Agriculture Sector really is but also give potential aggressors optimism that intentional attacks would have a high likelihood of success.

Compounding these obviously exploitable vulnerabilities is the widely accessible arsenal of biological agents now available to would-be terrorists. The plant and animal pathogens that could be used as biological weapons are much easier to acquire than deadly human pathogens are – or probably ever will be. Moreover, because most plant and animal pathogens do not put the people who handle them at risk during the mass production or release stages of an attack, they are much more desirable weapons than are human pathogens that could harm or kill the aggressors themselves.

In addition to the ease of acquiring plant and animal pathogens, the delivery mechanisms of introducing these same biological agents are relatively simple to use – or misuse. In most cases, the pathogens are highly contagious and could rapidly spread through crops or animal populations dispersed over fairly large geographic areas. A major related problem is that any medical countermeasures used are rather limited when it comes to protecting plants and animals. That deficiency means in turn that the rapid spread of a biological weapon introduced against a plant or animal can often be stopped only after the susceptible crops or livestock are destroyed.

The Role of the U.S. Private Sector 

In developing a plan of action to protect the Food and Agriculture Sector, the burden cannot fall entirely on state and local law enforcement agencies – primarily because of the many strategic challenges they would face in carrying out this mission by themselves. Efforts certainly have been made to develop effective strategies for protecting the sector – at the federal level, for example, beginning with Homeland Security Presidential Directive 9 (i.e., Defense of United States Agriculture and Food) issued in 2004.

Nonetheless, several federal agencies, such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration, have been struggling, with limited resources, to effectively secure the nation’s food and agriculture on their own. However, even as many federal, state, and local agencies have been stressing the importance of a truly integrated engagement, with the private sector heavily involved, to expand and improve the nation’s all-hazards preparedness capabilities, it also has become apparent that the private sector itself can play a critical role in the overall protection of the nation’s food supply.

It is equally important that members of the private sector also understand the risks and consequences of unintentional contamination as well as the connection between food safety and their businesses’ bottom lines. Paralleling the governmental efforts to integrate food-safety mechanisms will help the private sector contribute to a larger, significantly enhanced, and more effective nationwide food defense strategy. Moreover, although federal resources are limited, there have been several actions taken to expand and facilitate the private sector’s engagement in food defense. For example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture already supplies tools to assist the private sector in developing its own plans and strategies.

In addition, a recent effort by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration – creation of a new software program (Food Defense Plan Builder) – also assists the private sector in developing a customized food defense plan. The new software allows private industry to review current gaps and areas for improvement, as well as to make changes needed to provide greater protection against the threats posed by the intentional release of any biological agent.

Of course, the success of such efforts will continue to be dependent on the intended audience applying the cautionary steps needed. For a nationwide food defense system to be truly comprehensive, affordable, and capable of mitigating threats that could put the entire nation at risk, the private sector must work more closely and more effectively with local, state, and federal agencies to coordinate their combined efforts and close the vulnerability gaps still threatening the entire nation.

Patrick P. Rose

Patrick P. Rose, director for pandemic and catastrophic preparedness at the National Association of County and City Health Officials, holds a Ph.D. in infectious diseases and is a subject matter expert on national security issues related to public health security. He works with federal and local stakeholders to address requirements and gaps that produce vulnerabilities in public health security. In addition, he supports efforts domestically and internationally in the field and at the policy level to reduce the proliferation of biological weapons and to increase public health security awareness. These efforts include promoting greater engagement in the Global Health Security Agenda. He is an alumnus of the Emerging Leaders in Biosecurity Initiative and serves as an adjunct assistant professor at the University of Maryland Department of Epidemiology and Public Health.



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