Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Protecting Food from Terrorists ; at Last, Government Safeguards Start to Kick In

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Protecting Food from Terrorists ; at Last, Government Safeguards Start to Kick In

Article excerpt

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.

Terrorists have studied the idea

"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. …

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