by Charles Piller
GREELEY, Colo. — The teeming Swift & Co. slaughterhouse on the edge of town has the feel of a military base lately. Security cars cruise the fenced compound, and periodic drills are run to prepare for any attack.
At the Wayne Farms poultry plant in Decatur, Ala., armed guards patrol the grounds, searching for any threat to the tens of thousands of chickens.
In Porterville, Calif., dairy farmer Tom Barcellos recently installed video cameras in his milking barns to keep watch over his 1,200 cows.
Nothing seems farther from the front lines of terrorism than the vast American hinterlands, yet since the Sept. 11attacks, they have been drawn into the amorphous battle.
The threat is agroterrorism — the use of microbes and poisons to shake confidence in the U.S. food supply and devastate the $201-billion farm economy.
Diseases such as swine fever or citrus greening can spread across the land silently. A single outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease could require the destruction of millions of cows and result in a worldwide ban of U.S. cattle exports for years.
“The animal becomes a weapon,” said Peter Chalk, an agroterrorism expert at Rand Corp., the Santa Monica-based think tank.
Unlike the most feared bioterrorism threats, such as smallpox or anthrax — the latter of which was used with chilling effect in the aftermath of Sept. 11 — some virulent agricultural diseases are easily handled because they are harmless to humans. The microbes can be obtained from infected crops and animals worldwide.
No known specific intelligence has linked terrorists to attempts to compromise the food supply, federal officials said, but concerns were sparked after investigators discovered that the Sept. 11 hijackers had explored the use of crop dusters. Last year, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), chairwoman of the Governmental Affairs Committee, said U.S. forces found “hundreds of pages of U.S. agricultural documents” in caves in Afghanistan once occupied by Al Qaeda militants.
“The expertise needed to mount a serious attack is quite small,” said UC Davis microbiologist Mark Wheelis. “The amount of material needed — you could hold it in a ballpoint pen.”
To meet the threat, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is building or modernizing two dozen laboratories to quickly screen disease samples from around the country. It has created rapid response teams of plant and animal pathologists in each region to respond to outbreaks and is proposing to spend $381 million on biodefense in 2005.
“We’re looking at what changes are needed,” said Jeremy Stump, the USDA’s domestic security director, whose office is dedicated to the agroterrorism threat. “We may need to harden targets.”
Yet the efficiencies of the world’s most productive farm system — vast tracts of single-crop fields and factory farms that crowd thousands of animals in tightly packed pens — make agriculture impossible to secure.
For agroterrorists, the target blankets hundreds of thousands of square miles and is in every section of the country — from remote rural enclaves to the edges of large cities.
The biggest problem may be combating farmers’ widespread complacency — the tacit sense that the chances of being hit by an attack are remote and that their lands are too vast to protect anyway.
“Naturally, when there’s never been a Noah-like flood, people don’t want to prepare for it,” said Roger Breeze, an agroterrorism expert who recently retired from a top USDA post.
Warning Bells Go Off
The first alarms about mysteriously sick animals began to leak out in June 2002 — the first phase of an elaborate war game staged by Defense Department counterterrorism planners. In prime farm states, including North Carolina, California and Kansas, agricultural inspectors identified the infections as foot-and-mouth disease.
Participants looked on with alarm as the simulated virus raced across America. Within weeks, only portions of New England, Hawaii and Alaska were unaffected. After 45 days, 20 million imaginary animals had been destroyed. Losses totaled in the tens of billions of dollars, and public panic was leading to calls for martial law.
Efforts to police state borders and contain the simulated outbreak fell short even after the armed forces were called in.
“It was absolutely devastating and shocking to me that a handful of agricultural terrorism incidents led to the devastation of our economy,” said Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), who helped direct the response.
The events were part of a series of Defense Department exercises — codenamed Silent Prairie and Crimson Sky — conducted to test the abilities of government, military and agriculture officials to deal with a simulated agroterrorism attack.
“In our scenario, we had people in different towns shooting each other,” Israel said. “We had state governors ordering that people crossing state lines be shot on sight.”
In the late stages of the exercise, they discovered they couldn’t feed people in affected areas because of quarantines. A military strike against the attackers was ruled out because troops couldn’t be moved from quarantined areas.
“There wasn’t one aspect of life in the United States that was not touched,” Israel said. “I attended this skeptically. I left with a sense of real gravity.”
There have been several natural outbreaks of animal disease that lend credence to the view of the threat’s wide scope. In December in Washington state, a single case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy — mad cow disease — shut down most U.S. beef exports for months. Some nations still refuse U.S. cattle.
Three million chickens were destroyed in 2002 as exotic Newcastle disease swept through Southern California.
In 2001, British cattle were diagnosed with foot-and-mouth disease, forcing officials to destroy 4 million cows and sheep. As many as 80,000 carcasses per day were buried or burned on pyres that cast a pall over the countryside. The epidemic cost $15 billion in disposal, compensation, lost trade and tourism.
The British response was necessarily ruthless, although the disease rarely affects people and meat from infected animals is safe to eat. Exposed animals become pariahs rejected worldwide, so authorities manage serious infections by killing not just every sick animal, but any animal close enough to have been exposed.
In the United States, where the disease has not been seen in 75 years, every cow, sheep and pig within a five-mile radius of an infection typically would be destroyed.
Beyond the economic damage, the unfamiliarity of an agroterrorism attack alone could sow fear in a country whose citizens rarely think about the safety of their food supply.
“Killing all these animals and burning or burying them is exactly what terrorists want everyone to see,” said Breeze, the former USDA official.
Keeping Their Guard Up
If a real foot-and-mouth attack occurs, it might start at a place like Swift’s feedlot in Gilcrest, south of Greeley. It is a small city of cows — about 80,000 packed in pens.
Gates block entrances. Cameras and guards keep watch. Yet, unlike Swift’s fortress-like slaughterhouse, Gilcrest seems an easy target for an attacker lofting a bag of infected feed over the fence from nearby County Road 31.
Within a 10-mile radius are nearly half a million cattle, said Bob Rolston, past president of the Colorado Livestock Assn.
The primary concern of most farmers and ranchers is a natural outbreak.
“One catastrophic disease outbreak — and 15 years of market development is down the drain,” said Mark Gustafson, a senior vice president at Swift.
But the Sept. 11 attacks added a new layer of worry. More surveillance cameras have been installed in Swift’s feedlots. At the slaughterhouse in Greeley, every employee is searched before entering the plant through a tunnel accessible only from a guardhouse, said Jim Herlihy, a company spokesman.
Other large businesses have taken similar precautions.
This year, a Wayne Farms plant in Alabama began to distribute products in tamper-proof trucks that monitor temperature, record door openings and transmit global positioning coordinates to security managers. The company’s processing plants now use Internet-linked cameras that are monitored from a central office.
“Without the prior bioterrorism episodes — the idea that things can get out of control — people wouldn’t have been ready for the change,” said Sharon Hietala, chief immunologist at California’s animal health and food safety lab at UC Davis. “9/11 made it real.”
As the outskirts of cities encroach on rural America, farms have become as much a target for crime as any urban business, said Robert Matthews, a former head of Tulare County’s agriculture-crime unit who now operates Ag One Security & Investigation in Visalia. His firm provides employee background checks, guards and video surveillance to dairies.
Since the 2001 attacks, “some farmers look around the world — and say, ‘It could happen here,’ ” Matthews said. Farmers don’t want visitors anymore, he added. “That’s in the back of their minds — controlling access.”
Some High-Tech Help
These measures, however, seem small given the vast territory that must be protected against an attack or, more likely, a natural outbreak.
The industry has turned to advanced technology for assurance. But just like the battle against bioterrorism targeting people, each method would only limit rather than deter an attack.
Breeze and Wheelis advocate greater use of vaccines, but the approach is fraught with problems — high cost and logistical complexity among them.
Foot-and-mouth disease comes in more than a dozen strains, each of which requires a separate vaccine. Many nations cannot readily distinguish between infected and vaccinated animals and would reject either at their border.
Cepheid and Idaho Technology Inc. market suitcase-size devices that they call the first line of defense against agroterrorism.
Originally designed as mobile sensors to protect people against bioterrorism, the sensitive instruments sniff the air to determine the presence of a deadly microbe. Such devices helped map Southern California’s Newcastle outbreak.
Scientists are experimenting with portable units at poultry farms and dairies. But the scale of the problem overwhelms such solutions. Each device costs at least $30,000, and thousands would be needed by producers.
A complementary approach, known as animal tracing, ignores the germs. It can’t stop an attack but aims to contain the damage by monitoring cattle more closely than parents watch their own children.
Beef cows are typically sold three or four times and travel an average of 1,000 miles in their 24 months of life, often with little or no tracking. In the recent mad cow case, six weeks of frenzied investigation located only 29 of 81 cattle from the sick cow’s original Canadian herd.
At a Greeley feedlot, a dozen cows owned by Denver-based Maverick Ranch Natural Meats mill aimlessly. A gentle poke with a long-handled paddle gets them moving down a funnel leading to a hydraulic squeeze chute.
The machine seizes each startled animal as a worker holds a small optical scanner close to its eye. The device, made by Optibrand Ltd. of Ft. Collins, Colo., captures an image of the retinal veins and arteries at the back of the eyeball — a unique, lifelong biometric.
The worker quickly scans the animal’s ear-tag ID, and for good measure takes a picture of its face. The data is encrypted, time stamped and logged with global positioning satellite coordinates to mark the animal’s precise location.
The process is repeated each time the animal is relocated and continues at some advanced slaughterhouses as the animal is cut into steaks and chops.
Every 10 seconds a new cow — in slaughterhouse vernacular, “proteins” — enters Swift’s Greeley plant. Blood-spattered workers carve through the swaying, 1,200-pound carcasses. The steamy, acrid stench of death permeates everything.
Just after cows are killed, a worker scans the eyes on each carcass to capture the retinal pattern. Time, GPS coordinates and a company barcode are added and relayed to Swift’s database.
The disassembly line reduces a carcass to servings with such precision that a box of meat can be traced to the cow of origin.
McDonald’s, a major Swift customer, recently announced a plan to make 10% of its hamburgers traceable.
Eventually, Swift wants traceability beginning “before birth, using DNA [and] forward to the plate,” Herlihy said.
Such tracing programs are just gaining traction among large U.S. food companies. The technology, however, hardly registers with the multitude of ranches and feedlots that supply them.
For four generations, Abbie Nelson’s family has raised cattle across the country. As owner of Five Star Land & Livestock, she raises pampered Angus breeding stock known for their docility, beauty and tender meat.
Until recently, Nelson’s 150-head ranch in Wilton, near Sacramento, always seemed as placid as her cows.
Like many farmers, she clung to the old refrain, “We’re safe because we know our land and our neighbors” — even as the cost of living has pushed tract housing, malls and schools into the countryside.
“Since 9/11, we’re more wary,” she said. “We’re all just looking over our shoulder a little bit?. We worry about contamination to water or feed supplements.”
Nelson regards potential agroterrorism as a rude intrusion on a genial culture. She locks gates and pastures, and when she drives around the ranch, she watches for strangers.
“We’re the beginning of the food chain for the beef industry,” she said. “People rely on us to make good conditions for the reliability of the beef.”
But she has no plans to install DNA sensors, biometric tracking devices or video cameras — costly and possibly disruptive approaches that she sees as an overreaction.
“We’re very trusting in our industry,” she said. “We do a lot of things on a handshake or a word. We’ll probably be the first ones to go down.”