Agroterrorism: Threats and Preparedness

Overview of the Threat 

The potential of terrorist attacks against agricultural targets (agroterrorism) is increasingly recognized as a national security threat, especially after the events of September 11, 2001. In this context, agroterrorism is defined as the deliberate introduction of an animal or plant disease with the goal of generating fear, causing economic losses, and/or undermining stability.

Agroterrorism is a subset of the more general issues of terrorism and bioterrorism. People more generally associate bioterrorism with outbreaks of human illness (such as from anthrax or smallpox), rather than diseases first affecting animals or plants. Agriculture has several characteristics that pose unique problems for managing the threat:

  • Agricultural production is geographically disbursed in unsecured environments (e.g., open fields and pastures throughout the countryside). While some livestock are housed in secure facilities, agriculture in general requires large expanses of land that are difficult to secure from
  • Livestock are frequently concentrated in confined locations (e.g., feedlots with thousands of cattle in open-air pens, farms with tens of thousands of pigs, or barns with hundreds of thousands of poultry). Concentration in slaughter, processing, and distribution also makes large scale contamination more likely.
  • Live animals, grain, and processed food products are routinely transported and commingled in the production and processing syste These factors circumvent natural barriers that could slow pathogenic dissemination.
  • The presence (or rumor) of certain pests or diseases in a country can quickly stop all exports of a commodity, and can take months or years to
  • The past success of keeping many diseases out of the S. means that many veterinarians and scientists lack direct experience with foreign diseases. This may delay recognition of symptoms in case of an outbreak.
  • The number of lethal and contagious biological agents is greater for plants and animals than for humans. Most of these diseases are environmentally resilient, endemic in foreign countries, and not harmful to humans – making it easier for terrorists to acquire, handle, and deploy the pathog

Thus, the general susceptibility of the agriculture and food industry to bioterrorism is difficult to address in a systematic way due to the highly dispersed, yet concentrated nature of the industry and the inherent biology of growing plants and raising animals.

The results of an agroterrorist attack may include major economic crises in the agricultural and food industries, loss of confidence in government, and possibly human casualties. Humans could be at risk in terms of food safety or public health, especially if the chosen disease is transmissible to humans (zoonotic). But an agroterrorist attack need not cause human casualties for it to be effective or to cause large scale economic consequences.

The production agriculture sector would suffer economically in terms of plant and animal health, and the supply of food and fiber may be reduced, especially in certain regions. The demand for certain types of food may decline based on which products are targeted in the attack (e.g., dairy, beef, pork, poultry, grains, fruit, or vegetables), while demand for other types of food may rise due to food substitutions.

An agroterrorism event would cause economic losses to individuals, businesses, and governments through costs to contain and eradicate the disease, and to dispose of contaminated products. Economic losses would accumulate throughout the farm- to-table continuum as the supply chain is disrupted, especially if domestic markets for food become unstable or if trade sanctions are imposed by other countries on U.S. exports. The economic impact can spread to farmers, input suppliers, food processors, transportation, retailers, and food service providers. 

Public opinion may be particularly sensitive to a deliberate outbreak of disease affecting the food supply. Public confidence in government could be eroded if authorities appear unable to prevent such an attack or to protect the population’s food supply. As the United States evolved away from an agrarian society during the 20th century, food and the fear of inadequate food supplies moved further from the minds of most U.S. residents. However, because food remains an important part of everyone’s daily routine and survival, significant threats to the currently-held notion of food security in the U.S. could cause a reordering of people’s priorities.

Because an agroterrorist attack may not necessarily cause human casualties, be immediately detected, or have the “shock factor” of an attack against the more visible public infrastructure or human populations, agriculture may not be a terrorist’s first choice of targets. Nonetheless, some types of agroterrorism could be relatively easily achieved and have significant economic impacts. Thus, the possibilities are treated seriously, especially in the post-September 11 world.  

* * *

Bioterrorism Preparedness Act. The Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act (P.L.107-188, June 12, 2002) contained several provisions important to agriculture. These provisions accomplish the following:

  • Expand Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authority over food manufacturing and imports (particularly in sections 303-307).
  • Tighten control of biological agents and toxins (“select agents” as discussed in sections 211-213, the “Agricultural Bioterrorism Protection Act of 2002”) through rules issued by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  • Authorize expanded agricultural security activities and security upgrades at USDA facilities (sections 331-335).
  • Address criminal penalties for terrorism against enterprises raising animals (section 336) and violation of the select agent rules (section 231). 

New FDA Rules on Food Processors and Importers. The Bioterrorism Preparedness Act responded to long-standing concerns about whether the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) had the authority to assure food safety. FDA was instructed to implement new rules for (1) registration of food processors, (2) prior notice of food imports, (3) administrative detention of imports, and (4) record-keeping.

Proposed rules were issued in the spring 2003 followed by a comment period. On October 10, 2003, FDA published two interim final rules for registration of food facilities and prior notice of imports. Those rules were implemented on December 12, 2003, but FDA allowed flexible enforcement during a transition period. The rule on administrative detention of imports was effective upon enactment, with FDA procedures announced on May 27, 2004.    The final rule for record keeping is forthcoming.24

Registration of Food Processors. The Act required FDA to establish a one-time registration system for any domestic or foreign facility that manufactures, processes, packs, and handles food. All food facilities supplying food for the United States were required to register with the FDA by December 12, 2003. Registering involved providing information about the food products (brand names and general food categories), facility addresses, and contact information. Restaurants, certain retail stores, farms, non-profit food and feeding establishments, fishing vessels, and trucks and other motor carriers were exempt from registration requirements. However, many farms had a difficult time determining whether they needed to register based on the amount of handling or processing they performed.

Registration documents are protected from public disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The registry provides, for the first time, a complete list of companies subject to FDA authority, and will enhance the agency's capability to trace contaminated food. Critics argued that registration created a record keeping burden without proof that facilities will be able to respond in an emergency.