Raising awareness about the risk of agroterrorism

Published 28 January 2010

A day-long event in California’s Central valley sees farmers, terrorism specialists, and law enforcement officials discuss threat, impacts, and response needs involved in a potential terrorist attack on the area’s thriving agricultural sector

Government officials visited the International Agri-Center in Porterviile in California’s Central Valley on Monday to raise awareness of the threat, impacts, and response needs involved in a potential terrorist attack on the area’s thriving agricultural sector. Approximately forty farmers, industry representatives, and law enforcement officials attended the half-day course to learn more information about the multifaceted nature of agroterrorism.

The Porterville Record’s Sarah de Crescenzo writes that instructors John Kowalski and Kelly Hamilton, with the National Center for Biomedical Research and Training, Academy Counter Terrorism Education, presented a series of lessons addressing topics including the vulnerabilities of the food system, the psychological and economic impacts of agroterrorism, and ways agricultural materials can be used as weapons. “The more eyes we having looking out, the better,” organizer Tom Knowles said.

Knowles, of the Sacramento Regional Terrorism Threat Assessment Center, said he decided to have a seminar in Tulare to reach out to individuals in the food industry for their assistance in fighting terrorism. “The first responders know about agri-terrorism, so now it’s time to talk to the private sector,” he said.

Participants took a quick multiple-choice exam prior to the class to establish their level of knowledge about the topic.

Dale Janzen, Director of Industry Relations for the California Tree Fruit Agreement, represents peach, plum and nectarine growers. Though that sector has never had a problem with contaminated product, Janzen makes a point of staying on top of the latest information to maintain that record. “We always try to be ahead of the curve with potential problems,” he said. “Food safety is our main concern, and always has been.”

He called the seminar an “excellent” method of informing individuals involved in the agricultural sector about the variety of concerns with regards to agroterrorism. “We tend to focus on our own backyard, but here I’m getting a wider perspective,” he said.

During the introductory lecture, Kowalski referenced a number of recent contamination cases, such as the 2006 outbreak of E. coli in spinach, as well as incidents of animals contracting diseases that had farmers shaking their heads in recollection.

He also peppered the lesson with explanations of important terms such as zoonotic — a disease that can be passed between animals and humans. Janzen also emphasized the benefits of speaking with other interested in the prevention of agroterrorism at the event. “It’s always good to see what ideas are out there, what people are thinking and hear from other sources,” he said.

One of the number of law enforcement officials in attendance is directly involved with preventing such a terrorist attack: Tulare Fire Department Chief Michael Threlkeld has been part of the planning process for an incident action plan for the World Ag Expo since they were begun after 9/11. He said awareness among farmers is vital to prevent such attacks on agricultural hotbeds.

Many people involved in food production would see a stranger entering their property as a potential thief — not terrorist — he said.

The potential ramifications of an attack on a food production facility, Threlkeld said, are far-reaching. He emphasized the negative effect any amount of contamination could have on both the economy and public safety.

The security plan for the World Ag Expo consists of information to be used in the case of such an incident, including the chain of command, law enforcement resources and emergency services.

The show will take place from 9 to 11 February at the International Agri-Center, 4450 S. Laspina St.

Threlkeld was, however, concerned that no dairy farmers were in attendance at the seminar. “I think we have a lack of interest from local farmers,” he said. “We don’t have skyscrapers, but one anthrax spore could do a lot of harm here.”

The course covered different types of potential attack weapons, including chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear or explosive, as well as the manners in which they could be delivered. The greatest threats to agricultural, Kowalski said, are chemical and biological.