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Agriculture vulnerable to threat of attack

Experts say Northwest economy at risk from bioterrorism scare Related stories

John Stucke - Staff writer

Public health may not be endangered by a bioterrorist strike against America's farm animals and crops, but the consequences could cripple the multibillion-dollar agriculture industry.

"If the American people were led to believe that a contagion such as mad cow disease was in our beef supply or there was credible evidence that somebody had introduced something into our other food supplies," said Washington State University professor James Cook, "the risks to the economic underpinnings of agriculture would be immense."

Cook, a nationally recognized plant pathology expert, has spent the past year working on a National Academy of Sciences panel to report the biological threats to crops and animals. The findings are due next year.

In the Pacific Northwest, the aim of bioterrorism would be economic sabotage, not something more insidious such as mass murder, said state veterinarian Robert Mead.

"If they can fly airplanes into towers, ... I think anything is possible," he said. "I have to believe agriculture is lower on the list of mass destruction targets. I would think a nuclear device would be a higher priority."

While businesses and government agencies evaluate readiness levels in case of a terrorist attack, farmers and ranchers are working to ensure that the country's food supply is safe.

It is especially difficult in Washington, where much of the crops and meat raised is exported to fickle, trade-sensitive countries.

Agriculture is a $29 billion industry in Washington, accounting for about 20 percent of the state's economy.

Massive disruptions would do more than just ripple across the economy.

From the family farms in wheat country and migrant workers in the orchards to barge operators, fruit packers, truck drivers, french-fry processors, crop-duster pilots, tractor salespeople, slaughterhouse workers, loan officers and winemakers, more people are directly or indirectly employed in farming than in any other industry in the state, according to the state Department of Agriculture.

Upset agriculture and the state's economy wobbles.

While vulnerable, agriculture's very nature demands that scientists and government be ready for problems, Cook said.

"Rural America needs to know that somebody is minding the store," he said.

Every year different bugs and germs attack plants and animals, keeping researchers busy combatting outbreaks and assuring food buyers.

This year was especially unnerving for ranchers and feedlot operators as the highly contagious foot-and-mouth disease ravaged Great Britain's beef industry.

The disease, which hasn't appeared in Washington since 1914, wiped out nearly half of Britain's cattle herds.

In Washington, Mead said the outbreak served a purpose.

"With all the publicity, we were able to progress a lot further with our preventative planning," he said.

Veterinarians are on the lookout for diseases, and state agents are equipped to stop the spread of disease with a quick response intended to quarantine areas, confirm the disease and take appropriate action which is often the destruction of herds.

Especially at risk for disease outbreaks -- either from natural causes or a bioterrorism attack -- are giant feedlots, such as the Simplot yards with more than 80,000 head at Wallula, and meatpacking houses.

"We have to look at the things we take for granted and watch for sabotage," Mead said. "We also have to watch bogus claims. They can hurt us just as bad by not doing anything but claiming that they have."

The Agriculture Department is presenting disaster plans this week, based on work done before the Sept. 11 attacks and the sudden interest in safeguarding U.S. industries.

Gretchen Borck of the Washington Association of Wheat Growers said the opportunities for tainting wheat supplies are greatest at the milling and retail level -- not in the expansive farm fields of Eastern Washington.

Farm fertilizers and pesticides are carefully checked. Mass poisoning efforts on growing crops is too obvious. Also, farmers' harvests are checked when the wheat is delivered to grain elevators.

Overriding all those concerns, Borck said, is the straightforward fact that most of the wheat grown in the Pacific Northwest is shipped to Islamic countries.

"If there is an opportunity out there, it would be in creating distrust of food safety," said Cook. "If you were going to try for an impact psychologically, it would have to be akin to some of the things we have already seen."

One such case was a cranberry scare about 30 years ago, when a holiday news report indicated that an herbicide used for cranberries was shown to cause cancer in laboratory rats.

The scare later proved false, Cook said, but not before the assumptions that the herbicide must then be dangerous for people nearly ruined the cranberry industry when American families didn't buy and serve the Thanksgiving Day staple, Cook said.

Even with all the recent planning, Cook said there's still concern.

"We've done the preparation, but here's the `but' ..." he said. "Think about a football team that has practiced the play over and over, and then when it's time to do it during the regular game, somebody fumbles the ball. That's the worry."

-- Martin Thompson (, October 25, 2001

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