UC Davis institute stands watch against agroterrorism

Western Institute for Food Safety and Security focuses on research and educational efforts to protect food supply

July 13--California agricultural catastrophe could start with a single handkerchief.

In the hands of a clever terrorist, the handkerchief could be contaminated with the foot-and-mouth disease virus, then dropped in a pen of livestock. Cattle, which are curious by nature, would soon start sniffing the handkerchief, potentially creating a ground zero for one of the most feared diseases in farming.

The resulting outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease wouldn't cause mass casualties like other terrorist attacks, but the effects could be devastating for California's agribusiness. Mending this break in the food-supply chain would cost billions. Consumer confidence would suffer and the market price of beef would plummet, leaving ranchers in an economic meltdown.

Dr. Bennie Osburn and his colleagues work to prevent such devastation and develop strategies that would minimize the damage. He's the director of outreach and training at UC Davis' Western Institute for Food Safety and Security, which is funded in part by the Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

WIFSS' efforts center on research and educational efforts to protect our food supply and public health in case of a disaster, whether by natural or sinister means. The Department of Homeland Security, which provides about 40 percent of WIFSS' $1.9 million annual budget, as well as the FDA turn to this UC Davis institution as a primary source for tackling the country's food-security issues.

Food-safety-and-security scientists live in a world of preparing for worst-case scenarios, like that hypothetical outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, which could have devastating ripple effects across the state and beyond.

"Say it happens in a major feed yard on I-5 or Highway 99," Osburn said. "They'll stop all traffic. I mean, nothing will move in or out of there. What do you do about the milk from these dairies? What do you do about getting feed? Most large dairies only have enough feed for two or three days."

Target and risk

Sacramento is branded as "America's Farm-to-Fork Capital," with its 1.5 million acres of farmland in the region and 7,000 farms. The value of Yolo County's agricultural commodities alone are worth more than half a billion dollars annually.

But this bounty could also make the area a ripe target for agroterrorism, or maliciously disrupting or destroying food supply systems or agriculture. It's a subset of bioterrorism that targets crops and animals as a vehicle for warfare, by introducing pathogens, biological agents and other contaminants meant to cripple economies and even kill.

Agroterrorism has been employed since the earliest days of human warfare. In 600 B.C., Assyrians poisoned the wells of their enemies with ergot fungus. Dead bodies were used to contaminate wells in 1155 during the battle of Torona in Italy. As a tactic in World War I, German agents infected horses and livestock owned by the Allied armies with glanders, an infectious bacterial disease.

Examples can also be found in more recent times:

--10 salad bars in Oregon were spiked with salmonella in 1984 by followers of the cult leader Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. More than 750 people were poisoned in this plot to reduce voter turnout at local elections so the cult's own candidates could win.

--In 1989, a rogue organization called the Breeders claimed responsibility for spreading the Mediterranean fruit fly around Southern California. A letter sent to then-Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley and signed by the Breeders said they were releasing Medflies, which pose a risk to such key California crops as oranges and grapes, as retaliation for the aerial spraying of malathion.

--A Wisconsin man, Brian Lea, was indicted in 1999 for tainting livestock feed produced by National By-Products, a company that supplied Purina Mills. He added chlordane, a pesticide that targets the nervous system, to animal carcasses which would be processed into animal feed. The incident resulted in more than $2.5 million in losses by Purina and a four-state recall.

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