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How Safe Is the Nation's Food Supply from Terrorists?

Rina Ariel weeps over the body of her slain 13-year-old daughter Hallel at Kiryat Arba, West Bank, on June 30, 2016. (AP Photo/Olivier Fitoussi)

WASHINGTON – A specialist in agricultural economics offered assurances to a House panel that the nation’s farming industry has made significant advances and is well-positioned to endure any potential terrorist attack on the food supply.

Brian Williams, from Mississippi State University, told members of the House Subcommittee for Emergency Preparedness, Response, and Communications that diversity of production across the broad country offers some protection from any assault.

“Upon examining past incidences of disruptions in production and trade across a variety of commodities, the U.S. agricultural sector has demonstrated a remarkable resilience,” Williams told the panel. “In most cases, it would be difficult for a terrorist to inflict damage on a large enough scale to have a lasting detrimental impact on the U.S. economy.”

If a terrorist were somehow to succeed in inflicting large-scale damage, Williams said, “the agricultural industry has proven that it can recover quickly from most threats. With the cooperation of individual industry groups, state governments and the federal government in devising plans to respond to potential terror attacks or natural disasters, evidence suggests that damage from such disasters can be mitigated.”

Williams told lawmakers there are several things to consider in attempting to predict a terrorist attack on animal agriculture. If the damage is localized to a single county or even multi-county area, the impact will likely be minimal.

“One benefit of agriculture is that production is spread over a wide area,” he said. “As a result, natural disasters and other disruptions to production are quite common but typically have minimal impacts on the economy and markets.”

Williams cited a snowstorm that hit Nebraska and Iowa on Feb. 2, preventing cattle from being transported from feedlots to packers and all but shutting down the meat-packing industry for two days.

“But the fed cattle markets did not deviate from their normal patterns,” he said. “A similar early January snowstorm in Texas and New Mexico killed more than 30,000 dairy cows and caused significant local damage. Market fundamentals tell us that when supply is decreased, prices should shift higher, yet milk futures only increased slightly and the higher prices lasted less than a week before declining again.”

The impact, Williams said, “was only temporary because although the storm brought significant local damage, 30,000 head of dairy cattle is relatively small when compared to the more than 9.3 million head of dairy cattle in the entire U.S.”

One of the most significant potential threats from agro-terrorism, Williams said, is the introduction of a disease or pathogen that forces export markets to shut down. In Washington in 2003 a cow was found to be infected with BSE, halting a majority of the nation’s beef exports.

“It took over seven years for U.S. beef exports to return to levels seen before the first BSE case was discovered,” he said. “Despite a complete shutdown in U.S. beef exports that took several years to recover, cattle prices showed little-to-no impact.”

On the plant-based agriculture side, Williams said, the biggest threat is the introduction of food-borne illnesses such as e-coli or salmonella. Leafy greens are of particular vulnerability due to their fragile nature that makes them difficult to clean as well as a consumer’s tendency to eat them uncooked. Fruits and vegetables grown outdoors, where they are susceptible to contamination from natural sources such as birds, are easy to access by terrorists interested in introducing food-borne illnesses into the food system.

“While there is a system in place to detect, track and recall contaminated foods, there is still room for improvement,” Williams said.

Row crop agriculture may also prove susceptible to agro-terrorism and natural disasters but the damage would have to be “on a wide scale to have a significant impact on the economy,” Williams said. He noted that the 2011-2012 drought had a substantial impact on the economy.

“While unlikely, a terrorist attack that can reduce production any individual row crop could cause similar impacts as the 2012 drought,” he said. “However, if harm is inflicted on only one crop I would expect markets to return to normal much more quickly than they did following a drought that impacts the production of not just one crop, but several.”

Another witness was not quite so sanguine. R. D. Meckes, the North Carolina state veterinarian and one-time Department of Homeland Security official, noted that foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) is the foremost concern for those involved in animal agriculture production. The Tar Heel State, for instance, is home to 9 million hogs.

An FMD outbreak could shut down exports of fresh beef, pork or dairy products. In 2014, beef exports totaled $7.1 billion, pork exports $6.7 billion and dairy exports totaled $7.1 billion. About 11 percent of U.S. beef production and 22 percent of U.S. pork production are exported.

“That conclusion brings us face-to-face with the dilemma faced by our nation and our nation’s animal agriculture industry – there are not tens of millions of doses of FMD vaccine available, not anywhere in the world because there is no excess capacity for additional vaccine production – current production capacity meets current day-to-day market needs for FMD vaccine.”

The National Veterinary Stockpile, created to respond to the most damaging animal diseases — including FMD – has never received sufficient funding to stockpile FMD vaccines, Meckes said.

Rep. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.), who presided at the hearing, cited intelligence reports indicating terrorists have discussed vulnerabilities within various components of the nation’s agricultural sector.

“Food and agriculture is an attractive target to terrorists because many agents are easy to obtain, minimal technology is required to execute an attack, and our food travels across the country and world quickly and efficiently,” she said. “Furthermore, even if there are few human casualties, an agro-terrorism attack would also undermine public confidence in government, increasing general concerns about the safety of our food supply as well as the effectiveness of biological defense planning.”

“This goes to the heart of what we know groups like ISIS are trying to do — terrorize by any means possible.”