Until recently, the US government gave a low priority to the risk of a biological terrorist attack on the nation's food supply.
Fortunately, that neglect of "agroterrorism" is changing quickly - and for good reason.
Trying to shake American lethargy, former Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson
left his post last December with a sober warning: "I, for the life of me, cannot understand why the terrorists have not, you
know, attacked our food supply, because it is so easy to do."
True, the Bioterrorism Preparedness Act of 2002 has some provisions on agroterror. But it was not
until late 2003 that the first major congressional hearing devoted solely to this subject was held - and January 2004 before
a critical presidential directive on food security kicked into gear. Now, after a slow start, the US is taking notable steps to protect this soft target.
At the first-ever international conference on agroterrorism in Kansas City in May, FBI Director Robert Mueller noted that federal departments and agencies, including
the FBI, CIA, US Department of Agriculture (USDA), Food and Drug Administration, and Department of Defense
now meet regularly to identify threats and develop responses to agroterror.
Terrorists have studied the idea
"We know that members of Al Qaeda have studied our agriculture industry," Mr. Mueller remarked
with candor. Others note that 9/11 hijackers were investigating crop-dusting planes.
With agriculture making up 13 percent of the economy and 18 percent of employment, the devastating
results of an agroterror attack could go far beyond human casualties and include an economic crisis and a loss of confidence
in government. Even a false alarm over agroterrorism can prove costly. Some may recall the 1989 Chilean grape scare: A terror
group phoned the US
embassy in Chile claiming cyanide was in that country's grapes. The cost
was an entire crop of Chilean fruit and about $200 million in lost revenue.
Lately, a bumper crop of signs show agroterror is now being taken more seriously.
Last month, the Bush administration announced a "strategic partnership" that will send
public health and homeland security experts to each state to help pinpoint vulnerabilities in the agriculture and food sectors.
Funding at USDA for research and other efforts to counter agro-terrorism doubled in the first two years after 9/11. The USDA
has coordinators to develop emergency response plans. And in June, food importers were required to give prior notice of their
But the US still lacks sufficient veterinarians to recognize foreign animal disease; and
the ability to rapidly diagnose and treat the problem with vaccines is limited, the General Accountability Office (GAO) noted
in a March report. Also missing is an honest reassessment of the physical processes and management of concentrated animal
The meat industry's profitable practice of breeding and rearing livestock and poultry in
highly concentrated settings - with massive feed lot operations - can make the nation a "vulnerable target," the GAO wrote.
Between 80 and 90 percent of grain-fed beef cattle is concentrated in under 5 percent of
the nation's feed lots, the GAO found. Introduction of an animal disease into even a single feed lot "could have serious economic
consequences," the investigative agency wrote. The Congressional Research Service last year came to a similar conclusion.
If, as seems likely, concentrated animal feeding and processing leaves the nation and meat
industry at risk, then along with calls for more attention to faster response times, vaccines, and disease diagnoses should
come study of structural and process issues in animal operations that make the US food supply vulnerable.
What needs to be determined is the risk-cost trade-off, because substantially changing
something so fundamental as the centralized processing of animals could be hugely disruptive. Distributing livestock into
smaller groups, for instance, or slowing the pace of transporting animals to better test them might reduce the risk of a bio-attack,
but could prove prohibitively expensive. Such big-picture questions need to be raised, but also assessed for their practicality.
Terrorists could poison milk, report says
By Steve Sternberg, USA TODAY
Wed Jun 29,
Terrorists could poison thousands of people by dumping a toxin in the nation's milk supply, says a report published
today by the NationalAcademy of Sciences over government objections.
The authors, Lawrence Wein and Yifan Liu of StanfordUniversity, used publicly
available information to demonstrate that the nation's milk supply may be vulnerable to contamination with botulinum toxin.
Just one gram of toxin released into the milk supply chain could poison more than 100,000 people; 100 grams could affect nearly
600,000, says their report in the online Proceedings of the NationalAcademy of Sciences.
"The dairy industry is an obvious target," the researchers assert.
Botulinum toxin, the active ingredient in Botox, deadens nerves, making it difficult to breathe without mechanical
support. Without treatment, at least 50% of affected people die, doctors say.
Wein notes that milk is safer today than it once was, because of improved Pasteurization procedures. In the last two
years, many milk producers have voluntarily begun sealing tanker trucks to guard against contamination, says Chris Galen of
the National Milk Producers Federation.
Nevertheless, Wein says, much remains to be done. "It's been almost four years since the Sept. 11 attacks, and outside
this heroic effort to improve the Pasteurization process, there's been very little effort to move from food safety to food
security," he says.
The researchers based their calculations on an attack at a single processing facility, supplied by a steady stream
of 5,500-gallon trucks that pour raw milk into 50,000 gallon tanks for processing. Each gallon of milk is typically consumed
by one child and three adults in 3½ days, they say.
The paper was to be published May 30, but it was delayed at the request of Assistant Secretary of Health and Human
Services Steward Simonson, who called it a "road map for terrorists." HHS spokesman Bill Hall says: "Our concern is that
if the academy is wrong, the consequences are going to be dire, and it's going to be HHS, not the academy, that has to deal with it."
Bruce Alberts, president of the academy, says in an accompanying editorial that the article contains no information
useful to terrorists that is not already available on the Internet. He says highlighting vulnerabilities could help biodefense.
Wein says one effective safeguard is a new 15 minute test that could be used while raw milk is still in tanker trucks
undergoing routine testing for antibiotic residues.
Galen says protecting milk from contamination is more important. "We're not going to be cavalier about safety issues,"
he says, "but there's no practical way to test for every adulterant under the sun."
Medical care for several hundred thousand people poisoned by botulinum, the authors say, would cost "tens of billions
The study by Lawrence M. Wein and Yifan Liu of Stanford University
discusses such questions as how terrorists could release botulinum toxin into the U.S. milk supply and what effective amounts
A scientific article about the possibility of terrorists poisoning
thousands of people through the milk supply was published over the government's objections after the National Academy of Sciences
concluded that terrorists would not gain any know-how from the report.
Bruce Alberts, president of the Academy, defended the decision to publish the material, saying yesterday
that the information could be valuable for biodefense.
A terrorist would not learn anything useful from the article about the minimum amount of toxin to use,
Alberts said in an accompanying editorial. "And we can detect no other information in this article important for a terrorist
that is not already immediately available to anyone who has access to information from the World Wide Web."
The study by Lawrence M. Wein and Yifan Liu of Stanford University discusses such questions as how terrorists could release botulinum toxin into the
U.S. milk supply and what effective amounts might be.
Publication of the article had been delayed at the request of the Department of Health and Human Services.
HHS spokesman Bill Hall said yesterday the agency still feels the material shouldn't have been made public.
"We respect the Academy's position, but we don't agree with it," Hall said. The "consequences could
be dire and it will be HHS, and not the Academy, that will have to deal with it."
Science has a long tradition of publishing new information in peer-reviewed journals, providing an
opportunity for other researchers to confirm findings and advance to a next step.
Concerned About Too Much Info
However, following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, some government officials have raised concerns
that by obtaining biotechnology data terrorists might be able to engineer deadlier versions of diseases.
The milk threat paper and editorial were published yesterday on the Academy Internet site and will
appear in the July 12 print edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
It was originally planned for publication on May 30 but was withheld at the request of Stewart Simonson,
assistant secretary of Health and Human Services, who contended the paper was a "road map for terrorists."
Simonson said the paper provided too much detail on potentially vulnerable areas of the milk supply,
processing and distribution systems and argued that its publication "could have very serious health and national security
Wein said yesterday he was surprised when Simonson raised objections. He said he had met with officials
of HHS, the White House, the Department of Homeland Security and the dairy industry last fall to discuss the paper.
After that, Stuart Nightingale, an emergency preparedness official at HHS, asked to see the paper,
Wein said. He said he sent it to Nightingale, and, when he didn't hear back, he assumed there was no problem.
"I think PNAS [the publication] acted professionally," Wein said. It was correct of them to
delay the paper and listen to the government concerns, he said.
A key question is the percentage of botulinum toxin that would be inactivated by milk pasteurization,
and Alberts, the Academy president, said that in those discussions with HHS officials, the Academy learned improvements had been
made to the process since the terrorist attacks.
Because of those improvements, the nation may be safer from such an attack than the paper estimated,
However, Alberts added, many food protection guidelines are voluntary and there is "everything to be
gained by alerting the public and state governments to the dangers so that they can help the federal government in its ongoing,
highly laudatory, attempts to reach 100 percent compliance with its guidelines."
The report describes the milk supply chain from cow to consumer. It describes points where toxin could
be introduced, such as a holding tank at a farm, a truck transporting milk to the processing plant or a raw milk holding tank
at the plant.
One gram of toxin could affect as many as 100,000 people and 10 grams up to 568,000, the researchers
concluded. A gram is about the weight of a paper clip.
Wein and Liu suggest a number of steps to prevent an attack including locking of tanks and trucks when
not in use. They urge the government to require similar protections for the food industry overall.
The National Academy of Sciences is a private institution that provides scientific advice under a Congressional
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The federal government has
asked the NationalAcademy of Sciences not to publish a research paper that feds describe as a "road map for terrorists" on
how to contaminate the nation's milk supply.
paper on biological terrorism, by StanfordUniversity professor Lawrence M. Wein and graduate student Yifan Liu, provides details on how terrorists might attack the milk supply and offers suggestions on how to safeguard it.
appeared briefly May 30 on a password-protected area of the NationalAcademy of Science's Web site.
use that area of the Web site to get advance copies of articles slated for publication in the Proceedings of the NationalAcademy
downloaded the Wein-Liu paper called the Food and Drug Administration for comment, and the FDA notified the Department of
Health and Human Services, which asked the academy to stop the article's publication.
"is a road map for terrorists and publication is not in the interests of the United States," HHS Assistant Secretary Stewart Simonson wrote in a letter to the science academy chief Dr. Bruce Alberts.
gives "very detailed information on vulnerability nodes" in the milksupply chain
and "includes ... very precise information on the dosage of botulinum toxin needed to contaminate the milk supply to kill or injure large numbers of people," Simonson wrote.
clear on its face that publication of this manuscript could have very serious public health and national security consequences."
wrote that acting FDA Commissioner Dr. Lester Crawford was joining him in the request to halt publication.
of HHS and the academy said they are to meet Tuesday to discuss
has been dealing with the issue of scientific openness versus national security since 9/11," said academy spokesman Bill Kearney.
[members] are strong advocates of scientific openness while ensuring that nothing is done to aid terrorists."
the NAS routinely vets papers for security concerns before publishing them and had vetted the Wein-Liu paper.
After HHS raised concerns, the NAS decided to "take a step back and make sure that we weren't
putting out anything that we're uncomfortable with," he said.
NAS is a
private, nonprofit society of scientists and engineers chartered by Congress to advise the government on science and technology.
HHS spokesman Marc
Wolfson said Wein showed a draft of his paper last fall to HHS
staffers, who expressed concern about the level of detail in the paper.
that time, indicated that he was going to work it over a bit and he'd be back to us, back to HHS, if and when he submitted it for publication. That was the last we ... heard from him,"
CNN he would withhold comment until after the HHS and NAS meeting.
A week ago,
The New York Times published an op-ed article by Wein outlining a possible attack scenario.
most likely scenario, he wrote, a terrorist would buy toxin from an overseas black market laboratory, fill a one gallon jug
with a sludgy substance containing a few grams of botulin, and pour it into an unlocked milk tank,
or into a milk truck at a truck stop.
that the FDA guidelines for locking milk tanks should be made mandatory, and
said the dairy industry should improve pasteurization to eliminate toxins.
said he cannot recall another instance in which HHS
has asked a scientific publication to withhold an article on national security grounds.