Food Supply, Counter-Terrorism

Food Supply, Counter-Terrorism


The 1995 release of Sarin gas in the Tokyo subway system, and the events of September 11, 2001 in the United States illustrate society's vulnerability to terrorist attack in the course of everyday activities. Much of the infrastructure of public life (i.e., buildings, subways, airports) was not initially designed to thwart malicious activity. Food supplies are an additional component of the infrastructure, and as such, are also vulnerable to terrorism. Crops in the field are relatively unprotected. Food that is processed is monitored, not to detect the deliberate addition of a poison or an infectious agent, but to verify that the product is free from a small number of bacterial contaminants. Finally, on the supermarket shelf, products can be altered.

Terrorist attacks on a nation's food supply could not only cause illness, but also can cripple an economy. For example, the agricultural sector in the U.S. accounts for 13% of the country's gross domestic product and provides jobs for about 40 million Americans.

A disease outbreak carries the potential to cripple an economy. One example is the 1997 outbreak of Foot and Mouth disease among herds of pork in Taiwan. Battling the outbreak cost $7 billion. A similar outbreak in Britain in 2001 drained well over $4 billion from the economy.

The threats to food supplies. Obtaining a strain of bacteria or virus that causes plant or animal diseases is much easier than obtaining a highly infectious human pathogen. Agricultural pathogens can even be obtained from the environment. For example, scraping the surface of infected leaves is sufficient to recover some disease-causing viruses. Both the former Soviet Union and Iraq are known to have experimented with agricultural pathogens. Thus, a terrorist group having some microbiological expertise could acquire the microorganisms needed for their attacks.

Microorganisms can also be purchased from supply laboratories. An organization with convincing paperwork would be able to acquire microbes that are not considered to be highly infectious.

The advent of recombinant DNA technology in the 1970s—where a segment of genetic material coding for a protein of interest (i.e., a toxin) can be isolated and spliced into the DNA of a target microbe—holds the potential for the genetic modification of bacteria or viruses that are common in the environment. These genetic versions could spread quickly through the natural world.

Counter-terrorism measures. Following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the U.S. government moved to strengthen the country's defense against bioterrorism. This initiative culminated in the signing into law, on June 12, 2002, of the Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act of 2002 (the Bioterrorism Act). The act authorized the secretary of Health and Human Services to protect the nation's food supply. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is the lead agency in initiating the protective measures.

The U.S. measures are aimed at providing a system of accountability. For example, all businesses or growers who sell food for consumption in the U.S. must register with the government. As well, these firms will be required to maintain records of their food handling and processing activities. In the event of a deliberate contamination, this information would allow the source of the contamination to be traced.

The surveillance of food also must include inspection of food entering the country. This involves the manual inspection of foods arriving by air, sea, rail, and surface routes. As of 2003, these inspections typically consist of the visual examination of foods, although the use of portable devices that detect microorganisms or their products is being used experimentally. Other such devices are in the laboratory stage of testing, and have produced accurate results in laboratory settings.

Because protection of a nation's food supply cannot be absolute, a system of early warning of a bioterrorist attack is important. If widespread alerts are recognized soon enough, relatively few people will have consumed the contaminated food. Consumer vigilance is an additional important counter-terrorism measure. For example, even if raw produce has been doused with a poison or an infectious microorganism, careful washing will usually remove the threat. Canned foods that are damaged or swollen should be identified and discarded.



Layton, Peggy Diane. Emergency Food Storage & Survival Handbook: Everything You Need to Know to Keep Your Family Safe in a Crisis. Roseville, CA: Prima Publishing, 2002.

Pottier, John. Anthropology of Food: The Social Dynamics of Food Security. Oxford: Polity Pr., 1999.


Turco, R.P., A.B. Toon, T.P. Ackerman, et al. "Nuclear Winter: Global Consequences of Multiple Nuclear Explosions." Science no. 222 (1983): 1283–1297.


Purdue University. "Agoterrorism." Purdue Extension Backgrounder. September 24, 2001. < >(24 January 2003).

United States Food and Drug Administration. "Frequently Asked Consumer Questions About Food Safety and Terrorism." Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. January 16, 2002. < >(23 January 2003).

——. "Protecting the Food Supply: FDA Actions on New Bioterrorism Legislation." Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. November 18, 2002. < >(24 January 2003).


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