Food & Drink

Farm to warfare: UC Davis institute stands watch against agroterrorism

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:

The specter of agroterrorism has received more attention as a national security issue since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. U.S. officials have found evidence that al-Qaida terrorists sought to disrupt food supplies, including documents uncovered in the 2002 raid of an al-Qaida storehouse, which detailed ways for attacking United States agricultural targets.

“We look at the potential ways in which crops or animals could be given some kind of disease agent that would create a major catastrophic event,” said Osburn. “There’s concern about botulism, for instance, getting in the food supply, or ricin.”

While a large-scale agroterroism event has yet to materialize, officials remain concerned about the possibility given the fairly easy access to crops and livestock pens. Tommy Thompson sounded the alarm on agroterrorism during his 2004 resignation speech as U.S. secretary of health and human services.

“For the life of me, I cannot understand why the terrorists have not attacked our food supply because it is so easy to do,” said Thompson.

Balancing the public’s right to know against national security concerns is always a delicate balance. Officials with the State Threat Assessment Center, which provides intelligence to policymakers and industry leaders about terrorist threats, declined to speak with The Bee about vulnerabilities in California’s agriculture or the steps that would be taken to thwart attacks.

Craig McNamara, a longtime Yolo County walnut grower who also serves as president of the California State Board of Agriculture, said that WIFFS’ work is critical to the safety of California’s food systems.

“In California, we’re doing everything we can in agriculture to ensure we’re not susceptible,” said McNamara, son of former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. “First and foremost, farmers are tremendously optimistic. Do potential threats exist? Certainly they do. But on the other hand, we’re on our land and monitoring is taking place.”

Research and prevention

The front lines of WIFSS’ efforts against agroterrorism and foodborne illness outbreaks can be found on a series of research farms to the west of UC Davis’ main campus.

Judging by the barbed wire and prominent “No Trespassing” sign, passers-by get the sense that these aren’t bucolic fields for growing tomatoes and peppers.

Studies on these farms can entail introducing salmonella and E. coli bacteria (attenuated strains that wouldn’t cause sickness) into the soil or crop’s irrigation systems. Researchers such as Ronald Bond of UC Davis would then analyze such factors as how far the bacteria may spread in the field, or how long the organisms could remain a threat in the soil.

“We partner with the (agricultural) industry, regulatory agencies and schools,” said Bond, who specializes in water-quality research for WIFSS. “There’s always things to learn, and for the most part, the farmers and growers are prepared. We help them along.”

WIFSS (pronounced like “whiffs”) was founded in 2002, and exists as a joint program between UC Davis’ School of Veterinary Medicine and the College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences. This consortium brings together the university’s food scientists, veterinary researchers and agricultural experts to address food security issues. That might entail researchers studying salmonella or the parasite cryptosporidium in glass-enclosed labs at the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Sciences.

WIFSS’ efforts have included examining how a major E. coli outbreak occurred in 2006 among a spinach crop in the Salinas Valley. Researchers ultimately found wild pigs to be the carriers of the E. coli, which contaminated a spinach field and ultimately caused three deaths and sickened nearly 200 people after the spinach was distributed to 26 states and one Canadian province.

WIFSS partners with the California Department of Public Health, California Department of Food and Agriculture and the FDA, among other public agencies. WIFFS organizes seminars, designs food safety courses and shares its research findings.

“The veterinary school plays a big role, and certain disciplines work well with this: epidemiology, modern genetic testing of foods,” said Osburn, who previously served as the dean of UC Davis’ veterinary school for 14 years. “(Our) diagnostic labs can look for toxins quickly and we’re networked with all the major federal agencies. There’s a constant exchange of information.”

Natural disasters, too

Mother Nature can also disrupt the food supply and cause catastrophe. Think of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan, which led to a nuclear meltdown that contaminated tap water, foods and fish.

“Homeland Security is looking at more than agroterrorism now,” Osburn said. “They have us looking at all hazards that disrupts the food supply or causes contamination that leads to further problems. And then, how do we help these folks plan for that so there’s better coordination? We’re trying to sustain the food supply.”

So the work at WIFFS continues. Food and agricultural scientists from around the world meet regularly with WIFFS’ researchers and staff, including delegations from Mexico, Kosovo and China.

WIFFS’ efforts include developing and teaching courses certified by the Department of Homeland Security, which are geared for emergency response teams. Among the offerings: “AWR151: Understanding the Dangers of Agroterrorism“ and “AWR152: Principles of Preparedness for Agroterrorism and Food Systems’ Disasters.”

WIFFS also develops classes for veterinarians in rural America that cover foodborne diseases and biosecurity in livestock production.

The hope is that if an incident occurs, such as an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, that public health officials, farmers and emergency responders are on the same page, instead of going into panic mode.

“You’re always trying to be prepared for this thing if it happens,” said Osburn. “I think we’re doing a pretty good job of making people aware.”