Initially, emphasis on food and agriculture defense in the United States focused on foreign animal disease. Exercises conducted by the Department of Defense and, later, the Department of Homeland Security, prompted such investigations.
However, the 2004 issuance of Homeland Security Presidential Directive 9 (which “establishes a national policy to defend the agriculture and food system against terrorist attacks, major disasters, and other emergencies”) placed additional focus on the intentional contamination of food to cause public harm. The prospect of such an attack on non-animal agricultural production for economic means didn’t receive much attention – at least until what recently happened in Australia. The events strongly suggest we pay greater attention to this potential threat.
This is what happened: In June, in Queensland, Australia, an apparent case of seedling stock contamination occurred. Specifically, it involved seedling stock for tomatoes and other vegetables. In this suspected economic/industry attack, a person or persons contaminated the irrigation water for seedlings in two nurseries with a lethal dose of an herbicide (Velpar, hexazinone). This resulted in seedling demise several days after watering. The attack successfully killed seven million seedlings, impacting about half of the north Queensland farming region’s crops. This wasn’t the first occurrence. Two similar incidents occurred in the last eight years (in 2002 and 2006).
But the most recent proved the largest. While this act of intentional contamination didn’t result in substantial economic harm to Australia as a whole, it directly impacted and financially damaged 30 growers. Losses at both the local and national level ($50 million and $100 million Australian dollars, respectively) are substantial. Employees also bore the brunt of this malicious attack: More than 3,000 pickers were temporarily out of work.
This type of economic attack illustrated two things that indicate why we should be greatly concerned. The first involves the relative ease with which agricultural systems can be compromised. It wasn’t carried out with a high degree of sophistication. Still, some technical expertise was required to contaminate the irrigation water and to provide the right amount of chemical agent to result in the death of the seedlings. This leads to the second point: By demonstrating a specific pathway for the intentional introduction of a chemical agent into a production system, the incident highlights the nefarious potential for the use of similar pathways for contamination that could cause public health harm, or, depending on the stage of production, could cause sufficient economic harm on a national scale.
A few years ago in the United States, there was great concern that soybean rust would devastate the entire soybean crop. If an intentional contamination of primary stock for an agricultural commodity was successfully accomplished (as it was in Australia), it could take out an entire industrial base. Thus, this concern is of national importance.
While the Australian event was relatively limited in scope and focused on a narrow industry, it underscores how those with malicious intentions can effectively carry out an attack.
Returning to public health concerns, certain chemical agents that pose no particular threat or harm to an agricultural product could be incorporated or drawn into the product’s tissue. As consumers would eventually eat the product, this poses a potential public health problem.
The pathway to public health harm may not be necessarily intuitively obvious, but one of the crops attacked in this case (tomatoes) shares a commonality with several other crops: Portions of the product itself can draw fluid directly into the plant tissue, and the tissue may then contain that chemical or biological agent of concern. Previously, food-borne illness outbreaks have resulted from contamination of produce in the field. In some cases, it appears that there was direct incorporation of the bacteria into the plant tissue. Thus, we’re provided with a naturally occurring example of how this could result in a public health issue (the food-borne illness outbreaks), as well as a frightening example (in Australia) of how someone could potentially exploit the potential of food contamination.
Law enforcement officials are investigating the incident in Australia. At this point, despite a $200,000 (Australian dollars) reward for information, perpetrators haven’t been identified, nor have their motives been completely discerned.
THE LARGER IMPACT
Meanwhile, we’ve been robbed of an innocence that relates to food safety. Where we once ate products without fear, we now understand a new urgency: The fact that this was the third such contamination incident demonstrates the degree to which such attacks can be carried off successfully and anonymously.
The incident – just one of several naturally created or intentionally produced food events in recent years – cries out for increased diligence. We must be concerned about intentional attacks on the food and agricultural system – and not just because of the potential for public harm (which is horrific enough) but also for the potential of economic damage.
The measures taken to try to prevent such attacks are essentially the same, regardless of whether the motive is a business, economic or public health attack. There may be some slight differences, but in the end it comes down to protecting overall supply chain safety and security ranging from primary production (e.g., the tomato seedlings) to final consumption.
Shaun Kennedy is director of the National Center for Food Protection and Defense [NCFPD] and Elizabeth Cunningham is the organization’s communications manager. Established in 2004, the NCFPD operates as a Homeland Security Center of Excellence.