Companies already invest heavily to ensure the reliability of their procurement, production, and distribution networks. Large multinationals have sophisticated access and surveillance systems, food-quality controls, and food-safety equipment. They employ large security staffs.
Even mid-sized companies such as U.K.-based meat producer Fairfax Meadow, have invested in advanced surveillance systems to ensure compliance with food-quality standards as well as to strengthen security. In 2006, Fairfax installed an IP-video surveillance system as an upgrade from its previous analog network.
But these existing controls are aimed at preventing accidental contamination. The food industry may have to invest more to tighten security and safety standards in their plants to further reduce the risk that terrorists, criminals, or rogue employees could contaminate products.
Companies “are going to have to do more in sampling and testing on final products,” says Scott Stewart, senior security and counterterrorism analyst at Stratfor, a U.S. security consulting firm. He believes the risk is at the endpoint. “If we are going to see an act of terrorism [in the food industry], it’s going to be in finished products.”
Lethal pathogens can be readily—and legally—obtained from universities or commercial sources. Suppliers are not required to get security clearance for their clients or run background checks.
Workplace surveillance was first intended as a way to deter internal theft, but management now uses surveillance more for monitoring working practices, such as enforcing hygiene procedures, which should also limit the ability of terrorists to slip a lethal pathogen into the product they are handling.
But companies are still exposed to the risk of sabotage, either from employees or political activists, says Owen Warnock, an expert on European food law at British law firm Eversheds.
One vulnerability, he notes, is that food companies rarely carry out preemployment screening of production workers. The reason for the lack is that such checks would be relatively costly in a low-wage, labor-intensive industry with high turnover rates.
Warnock says that only one of his clients regularly checks the backgrounds of new employees. “It’s a meat company that is regularly targeted by extremist vegetarian and animal rights groups that try to get people in undercover and shoot videos of the installations,” he says.
What is the real risk of a terrorist attack on the food supply? The last such event in Europe took place in 1978 when a dozen children in Holland and Germany were hospitalized after citrus fruit from Israel was deliberately contaminated with mercury. The last time tainted food caused a significant number of deaths was in 1981, when 800 people died and about 20,000 were injured by a chemical agent in cooking oil sold door to door in Spain.
Given the relative ease of infiltrating the food chain, it might seem surprising that Europe has not suffered such an attack for many years. Yet many analysts see this type of terrorist attack as a high-consequence, low-probability threat for a variety of reasons.
While it may not be hard to get a rogue worker into a production unit, that person would have to plant a pathogen that would remain stable and escape detection long enough to reach consumers and affect a significant number of people. Consider that the only intentional mass food poisoning event in modern times took place in the United States in 1984, when followers of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh infected restaurants in a small town in Washington State with salmonella, sickening 750 people. No one died.
Perhaps more important from the terrorists’ perspective, even a successful food-contamination attack that causes people to die quietly in their homes after a bad meal may lack the terrifying visual impact that a violent assault, such as the 9-11 attacks, had.
For these reasons, experts remain skeptical that the food chain would be a terrorist group’s first choice as a target. In a booklet it produced for companies on terrorist threats, MI5, the British domestic security agency, minimizes the risk of bioterrorism.
Stratfor’s Stewart agrees. He says that although terrorist groups such as al Qaeda are believed to have “played around” with unconventional weapons, he thinks they will likely stick to explosives. “They prefer more practical measures,” says Stewart. He notes that the 2004 Madrid train attacks cost less than $10,000 to conduct but killed 191 people. In contrast, Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo spent millions of dollars and took years trying to develop biological weapons using pathogens like botulinum toxin and anthrax. Its biological weapon attacks hurt no one, although a later attack on the Tokyo subway with sarin gas killed 15 people in 1995.
Still, officials and industry take the threat of contamination of the food supply seriously. They recognize the huge potential for harm from contamination, whether intentional or not. Consider that about 300,000 people who ate undercooked clams in Shanghai in 1991 were infected with hepatitis A in the worst food-borne contamination incident in history. While that case was accidental, it gives a glimmer of how large the impact of an effective attack could be.
And that doesn’t count the economic harm that can occur when consumers lose confidence in the food supply, which can cause severe market disruption, as occurred in the beef industry after mad cow incidents and among businesses involved in the spinach supply chain when bags of that leafy green caused deaths from E. coli contamination. “Terrorists do not just want to kill,” says the European Commission’s Benoliel. They want to cause panic and economic harm. A vulnerable food supply could give them the chance to do both.