A panel of experts is warning members of Congress that more needs to be done to protect the nation's agriculture industry and food supply from terrorists.
Lawmakers Wednesday held their first congressional hearing into so-called "agroterrorism" since the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001.
Senator Susan Collins, chairwoman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee which held the hearing, said the al-Qaida terrorist network has been seeking ways to target the nation's agriculture industry and food supply. "Hundreds of pages of U.S. agricultural documents recovered from the al-Qaida caves in Afghanistan early last year are a strong indication that terrorists recognize that our agriculture and food industry provide tempting targets," she said.
Senator Collins said an attack on the food supply would have devastating effects. "An attack on just one segment of the food supply could cripple our economy, require geographic quarantines, cause massive social upheaval, and of course, produce illness and death," she said.
Tom McGinn of the North Carolina Department of Agriculture has been studying the potential impact of such an attack on a local community. In one scenario, he looked at what would happen if two biological pathogens were introduced into the food supply. "Such a biological attack would create signs both gastric, respiratory and neurological. Anybody who is sick with any kind of disease, whether it is flu or an allergy, or simple stomach virus would think they were infected as well. This would overload our public health system, and the confidence in the government's ability to respond would be called into question, and fear would be widespread," he said.
A researcher with the private nonprofit RAND Corporation, Peter Chalk, released a report that recommends a series of measures to better protect the agricultural and food industry. They include coordination between federal agricultural and intelligence agencies, enhanced law enforcement to determine whether disease outbreaks are deliberate or naturally occurring, and improved quality control and emergency response measures at food processing and packing plants.
Mr. Chalk said security at food packing plants is lacking. He said the same holds true for the nation's farms. "There is insufficient farm and biosecurity surveillance. Farms in the United States have tended not to think about a deliberate attack against their facilities, much less actively plan to prevent one," he said. "Farms have as a result evolved as relatively open affairs, seldom incorporating concerted means to prevent unauthorized access or intrusion."
Bush administration officials say they are working to keep the nation's food supply safe.
Penrose Albright is assistant secretary for science and technology at the Department of Homeland Security. "We are developing key enabling technologies and tools to prevent, detect, respond and recover from the intentional or unintentional introduction of biological agents into the national agricultural and food systems," he said.
Mr. Albright said the government is developing vaccines, working to improve a system to detect biological agents, and planning to open a university-based center dedicated to food safety next year.