For the life of me, I cannot understand why the terrorists have not attacked our food supply because it is so easy to do.
—Tommy Thompson, former Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services at his farewell news conference, December 3, 2004
We may be blindsided by an intentional food-based attack on this nation sometime soon… At present, our primary detection capability is the emergency room.
—John Hoffman, former Department of Homeland Security senior adviser, testifying before a Senate subcommittee on counter-terrorism, September 14, 2011
In the the wake of 9/11, one of our deepest fears was that terrorists would poison our food.
Vowing to draw a protective shield around our food supply, President Bush made food defense a focal point of our National Security Policy and the newly-formed Department of Homeland Security. Presidential directives were signed pulling food into the realm of our nation’s critical infrastructure where it joined priority sectors like communications, energy, transportation, and emergency health services.
10 years have passed, agencies have been created, $3.4 billion has been spent; and a congressional watchdog report, the subject of last week’s Senate hearings, suggests that we remain as vulnerable as ever to the nightmare scenario of food terrorism.
No big surprise.
The past decade of food counter-terrorism activity has been bogged down in bureaucratic tangles and inefficiencies. Food monitoring activities are far-flung and fragmented: there’s the oversight of federal agencies like the USDA, FDA, Department of Defense, and Homeland Security; and in many segments of agriculture and manufacturing, there are parallel systems of self-regulation and voluntary compliance on the part of the private sector. Lines of responsibility are blurred, communications between unrelated entities are scattershot, and there is no one with the authority or accountability to take charge.
The public has also dropped the ball, losing its post-9/11 sense of urgency and lulled into complacency by the relative domestic quiet of the intervening years.
72% of deliberate contaminations take place at the end of the food supply chain—the rat poison in a husband’s dinner or tranquilizers in the city council’s coffee pot. Another 23% take place at the retail grocery or restaurant level. These tend to be mostly thrill crimes, or crimes of passion, revenge, and retribution.
Direct attacks on the food supply are rare. Most have targeted water supplies, food processors, and manufacturers. Conventional contaminants like cyanide and mercury are most common, although in recent years we have seen an increase in the use of biological agents including salmonella, ricin, and radiological matter. They are often politically motivated, like a 1984 salmonella attack directed at voters that sickened nearly a thousand Oregon residents, and the more recent poisoning death in London of the former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko, who was killed with a lethal dose of radioactive polonium-210 in his tea.
Some might argue that despite our apparent vulnerability, we have little to fear because the world has never seen a large-scale act of biological warfare on a food supply. But then again, the world had never seen anything like 9/11.
You can view a webcast of the recent Senate Subcommittee session, Agro-Defense: Responding to Threats Against America’s Agriculture and Food System, and see transcripts of witness testimony at the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs website.