Replace the Weak Links in the Food Chain

By Peter Chalk

Peter Chalk is a RAND policy analyst.

Agriculture and the food industry are key elements of the U.S. economic and social structure. Unfortunately, the sector remains highly vulnerable—both to deliberate and to accidental disruption—for several reasons. Critical considerations include the following:

  • Husbandry practices that have heightened the susceptibility of animals to disease. These practices, designed to increase the volume of meat production, include the routine use of antibiotics and growth stimulants in animal diets.

  • The existence of a large number of microbial agents that are lethal and highly contagious to animals. The bulk of these diseases are both environmentally hardy—able to exist for long periods of time in organic matter—and reasonably easy to acquire or produce. Vaccination is no panacea, because it poses risks to animals, and there are no vaccinations for some diseases.

  • The ease and rapidity with which infectious animal diseases can spread, owing to the extremely intensive and highly concentrated nature of U.S. farming. Models developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) suggest that foot and mouth disease, for example, could spread to as many as 25 states in as few as five days through the routine movement of animals from farm to market.

  • The proliferation of food processing facilities that lack sufficient security and safety preparedness. Several thousand facilities exist nationwide, many of which are characterized by minimal biosecurity and surveillance, inadequate product recall procedures, and highly transient, unscreened workforces. These facilities represent ideal sites for the deliberate introduction of bacteria and toxins such as salmonella, E. coli, and botulin.

The specific consequences of a major agricultural or food-related disaster in the United States are difficult to predict and would vary with the type of outbreak. During a foot and mouth epidemic, for example, the country would suffer direct economic effects from the inability to export affected agricultural goods to most foreign markets until the outbreak was under control and also from limited travel and tourism in quarantine areas. Recent experience with such an epidemic in the United Kingdom has shown that agricultural and tourism markets can be disrupted for weeks and months.

More by luck than design, the United States has not experienced a major agricultural or food-related disaster in recent memory. As a result, there is little real appreciation for either the threat or the potential consequences. The federal government has yet to allocate the resources necessary to develop an integrated and comprehensive emergency preparedness plan capable of responding to this kind of disaster. Meanwhile, biosecurity and surveillance at many of the country's food processing and rendering plants remain inadequate, with most plants lacking viable product recall and trace-back plans.

If a terrorist were to succeed in disrupting the national food supply, the United States would quickly discern the many ways in which it is unprepared to respond. Specific weaknesses include

  • an emergency management program designed to deal with only one or two localized animal disease outbreaks at a time

  • insufficient numbers of diagnosticians trained to recognize and treat animal diseases of foreign origin

  • insufficient food surveillance and inspection at processing and packing plants

  • inadequate procedures for responding to foodborne diseases

  • inadequate coordination between the agricultural and criminal justice communities

  • an emergency response program that relies on an unreliable, passive, disease-reporting system and is hampered by a lack of communication and trust between regulators and producers.


Cattle raised on Marvin DeBlauw's ranch near Hartington, Neb., eat mostly grass and alfalfa—in contrast to most commercially raised cows, which are fed corn, nutritional supplements, antibiotics, and hormones.

The United States can substantially strengthen its agricultural and food emergency response structure over the short and medium term by taking these steps:

  • Reform the overall veterinary science curriculum, placing greater emphasis on large-scale animal husbandry, recognition and treatment of animal diseases of foreign origin, and diagnostician training in these diseases.

  • Increase the number of laboratories that can be used to diagnose outbreaks of virulent foreign and exotic animal diseases, and improve the capacity of the laboratories to conduct research on the diseases.

  • Implement regular preparedness and response exercises.

  • Develop electronic communication systems to integrate field staff with emergency management staff.

  • Involve accredited local and state veterinarians in the USDA's overall emergency management and response plan as well as in local preparedness planning.

  • Foster better coordination and more-standardized links among the agricultural, criminal justice, and intelligence communities, especially in the context of epidemiological investigations to establish whether a disease outbreak is deliberately orchestrated or the result of a naturally occurring phenomenon.

  • Examine the role that markets, insurance, and other economic levers can play in increasing control measures (such as culling of herds).

  • Investigate ways to enhance biosecurity, surveillance, and emergency response measures at food processors and packing plants, especially smaller-scale ones. Useful measures that could be initiated immediately include better site security and clearly documented, well-rehearsed product recall plans.

Over the longer term, it is unclear whether a single federal agency should be given the budgetary and programmatic authority to standardize and rationalize food and agricultural safety procedures across a wide spectrum of jurisdictions. The potential utility of this approach needs to be carefully examined. Such an agency could help to weave together the patchwork of largely uncoordinated food safety initiatives that currently exists in the United States. The agency could also contribute substantially to the development of a national emergency response plan that could both reduce conflicts and eliminate unnecessary duplication of effort in the fight against animal and food diseases.

Related Reading

Terrorism, Infrastructure Protection, and the U.S. Food and Agricultural Sector, Peter Chalk, RAND/CT-184, 2001, 11 pp., $5.00.