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U.S. food supply vulnerable to terrorist attack, experts say
Scripps Howard News Service


July 22, 2005

NEW ORLEANS - America's complex food-supply system remains vulnerable to a terrorist attack, government and academic experts say, but they are embarking on a campaign to shore up some of the vulnerable spots.

Robert Buchanan, a senior science adviser with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, said mounting an attack on the food system would not require a great deal of knowledge or sophistication, and the result could be catastrophic.

The number of biological or chemical agents that could be used in an attack "is huge," Buchanan told the Institute of Food Technologists, which is holding its annual convention here this week. "I'm amazed how many agents are available over the Internet."

Under a January 2004 presidential directive, the government is trying to identify vulnerable spots in the food-system infrastructure and also seeking help from American universities to develop inexpensive but accurate rapid diagnostic kits, Buchanan said.

The FDA is asking academics and industry professionals to identify highly vulnerable spots that terrorists might exploit - on the farm, in machinery where food ingredients are mixed together in processing plants, and in the transportation system.

Buchanan urged food scientists to use greater caution in publishing in scientific journals information on making or altering dangerous pathogens.

"There's a level of detail we can be cautious about," Buchanan said, contending that scientific papers shouldn't give a road map to terrorists. "I'm not talking about major changes" in the exchange of scientific information, he added.

Francis Busta, director of the National Center for Food Protection and Defense at the University of Minnesota, said academics and food-industry professionals need to concentrate on developing new and cheap detectors for dangerous food pathogens - particularly anthrax, botulism agents and ricin, which is a toxin easily made from castor beans.

Busta is heading a team of Institute scientists that has been examining food-industry vulnerabilities and this year prepared two classified reports for the FDA. Busta said the IFT will convene a two-day conference of academic experts this year to make recommendations for bolstering security.

He said the sort of pathogen that terrorists are likely to exploit are colorless, tasteless, odorless and resistant to heat and chemicals used when food is cooked or processed. "I'm not going to give the specific vulnerabilities," Busta said.

Busta said that in the wake of 9/11, many large food processors launched aggressive campaigns to improve security at their plants, installing fences and security systems where ingredients are mixed or vulnerable to tampering.

"But some said they weren't going to do anything until something happens - the classic head in the sand," Busta said. "The further we get from 9/11, the less intense people get."

Cory Bryant, an Institute scientist working on the project, said the food supply is regarded as a potential terrorist target because an attack would have widespread effects on the U.S. population and economy.

"We all eat," Bryant said.

In addition, about 22 percent of the U.S. work force is connected to the food and restaurant industries. Bryant said one likely sign of an attack would be an increase of illnesses among food workers.

He said some experts concluded that prime targets for bioterrorism could be large food processors, which mix huge batches of food from different ingredients each day and transport products that are expected to be eaten quickly and have a short shelf life.

Bryant said academic researchers also are exploring cleanup and recovery issues, involving how the food industry can continue to feed the U.S. population after an attack.


Contact Lance Gay at gayl(at)

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