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
Poison is available, so poison the water and food of at least one of the enemies of Allah.
—militant identified as ‘Abu Salman the Frenchman’ speaking in an ISIS recruiting video released November 15, 2015
The US made big plans to draw a protective shield around our food supply in the the wake of 9-11.
Food security joined priority sectors like communications, energy, transportation, and emergency health services as a focus of the newly-formed Department of Homeland Security. Early 2002 saw the quick passage of the Bioterrorism Act, intended to create pathways for cooperation and oversight between the government, private industry, and public agencies like water departments and the FDA. But after more than a decade of Presidential directives, Senate hearings, and Congressional reports, we remain as vulnerable as ever to the nightmare scenario of food terrorism.
The problem is that food counterterrorism happens at the intersection of geography and bureaucracy.
Geographic hurdles exist because domestic food production takes place over vast, sprawling areas which are impossible to protect effectively. Oversight becomes even more complicated in a globalized world economy in which food and food ingredients are imported from countries where health and safety standards are low or non-existent. Then there are the 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.
One of our deepest fears following the 9-11 attacks was that terrorists would poison our food. But we’ve been lulled into complacency by the relative domestic quiet of the intervening years, and lost our post-9-11 sense of urgency to effect change. Also, direct attacks on the food supply are rare. The vast majority 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. Occasionally we see tampering at the retail grocery or restaurant level, but these tend to be mostly thrill crimes, or crimes of retribution. Rarer still are politically motivated acts, like the 1984 salmonella attack directed at voters that sickened nearly a thousand Oregon residents, or the 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.
All that tells us is that it hasn’t happened yet.
Food is easily the least protected element of our nation’s critical infrastructure. Some might argue that despite its vulnerability, we have little to fear because the world has never seen a large-scale act of warfare on a food supply. But then again, the world had never seen anything like 9-11 or the ISIS attacks on Paris.