Low-tech terror seen as threat to food supply

January 21, 2002 The Gazette (Montreal) by Helen Branswell
Since Sept. 11 showed that low-tech terrorism is a potent threat, there have been lots of restless nights for veterinarians and others involved in the agri-food industry.

Forget suicide-bent fanatics who use airplanes as flying bombs. A few scraps of contaminated meat dropped into a pen of hogs could spark an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease that could cost billions of dollars to contain, experts warned during a weekend conference on biological terrorism. "I even sort of hesitate to talk about this in public forums," admitted Dr. Corrie Brown, head of the pathology department at the University of Georgia's college of veterinary medicine.

Rumours abound in the United States of swarthy-looking men taking pictures of feed lots, said Dr. Linda

Logan, executive director of the Texas Animal Health Commission.

Logan said she has no idea if there is any truth to the rumours, but admitted she and others who oversee the system take them seriously. "We've put people on alert to be extremely vigilant."

Little Effort or Risk

She and Brown were part of a panel on the vulnerability of the food chain and the water supply at the weekend-long conference, which drew researchers and policy-makers in the fields of infectious diseases, public health and veterinary sciences.

The conference was organized by the Institute of Infection and Immunity, one of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

Naturally occurring outbreaks of animal diseases - like the nearly year-long epidemic of foot-and-mouth that has ravaged Britain's agricultural and tourism sectors - could be replicated by terrorists with little effort and minimal personal risk, speakers warned.

Canadians only have to look to the last outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in this country to see how easy the task would be, Brown noted.

That outbreak, in 1952, was blamed on a European man who went to work on a farm in Canada. He bought with him a sausage made from tainted meat. The rest is history.

Outbreaks of such highly contagious animal diseases would slam shut the doors to international trade. Exacerbating the economic fallout would be the fact that the domestic market too would shun the suspect meat, as British consumers did when their government admitted there might be a link between variant Creutzfeld Jakob disease and bovine spongiform encephalopathy or mad-cow disease.

'All About Economics'

"We certainly have a population primed for that (anxiety) by recent food scares in the United Kingdom, Europe and here in North America," said Dr. Scott McEwan, professor in the department of population medicine at the Ontario Veterinary College.

Acts of agro-terrorism would be unlikely to endanger human health. Nor would they threaten an adequate supply of food to North American markets, Brown said. "It is all about economics."

She cited a small example: in 1998, some chickens bred for cock-fighting in Fresno, Calif., were found to have Newcastle disease, a contagious ailment that is ultimately fatal to poultry.

When U.S. authorities reported the incident to the international organization that tracks highly contagious animal diseases, Russia barred U.S. poultry imports for six months - even though the gaming chickens were destroyed and no cases of the disease were found in commercial flocks.

The six-month trade ban cost U.S. poultry farmers $400 million.

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