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U.S. food supply chain among nation's many vulnerabilities.

AMONG THE DOZENS of potential targets terrorists can attack in the U.S. homeland is the nation's food supply chain.

The demand for fresh produce, the quick and efficient distribution networks and the short shelf lives of products "makes it a very good delivery system for terrorists," Frank Busta, director of the National Center for Food Protection and Defense, told a gathering of Washington-based reporters.

Food products include ingredients from around the world that are derived from a range of sources. Oversight and security in the supply chain are often lacking. A food-borne biological or chemical weapon inserted into the nation's just-in-time delivery system could rapidly cause havoc, he said.

The outbreak last year of e-coli bacteria found in spinach points to the potential devastation of an intentional attack. That was a relatively low concentration of contaminant, he noted. Because such products have short shelf lives, they are taken home and consumed before authorities even realize that there is a problem. A full-scale attack of an agent such as botulism would have a devastating effect, he said.

Nevertheless, there has been scant evidence that terrorists are planning such an attack, he conceded. There was some evidence uncovered in Afghanistan that al-Qaida had thought about the possibility. "Chatter" among terrorists contemplating such an attack has been low, although he noted that good terrorists don't chatter much.

The food distribution network is almost entirely in the private sector's hands, so the agriculture and food processing industries have major roles to play. The National Infrastructure Protection Plan, the federal government's strategy to put appropriate agencies together with private sector role-players to protect vital U.S. economic interests, includes food and agriculture as one of the 17 categories.

The federal government has conducted several table-top exercises to look for vulnerabilities and shortcomings in its response plans, if a terrorist attack were uncovered, the FBI would take the lead in an investigation, with the Department of Homeland Security playing a coordinating role. The Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture would also be involved. The center, based at the University of Minnesota, conducts research on food safety and will act as an adviser to federal authorities in case of attack. It is one of DHS' centers of excellence.

"We want to make the food distribution system a less attractive target for terrorists," Busta said.
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Title Annotation:SECURITY BEAT: Homeland Defense Briefs
Comment:U.S. food supply chain among nation's many vulnerabilities.(SECURITY BEAT: Homeland Defense Briefs)
Author:Magnuson, Stew
Publication:National Defense
Date:May 1, 2007
Words:393
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