Newswise — A terror attack against the United States food supply could result in significantly more casualties than caused by 9/11 and cost the economy hundreds of billions of dollars. Still, research on consumer diet choices and existing food supply systems indicates that terrorists would find it difficult to cripple the nation long-term.
These and other observations were shared here at the National Food Protection and Defense Research Conference that concluded Friday.
Experts from the government, food industry and universities identified the need to research ways to protect the food supply chain, from the growing fields to the produce aisles in stores, and elsewhere. Research is also needed on tools for quickly identifying contaminants, on predicting consumer reaction to attack, on psychological terror, and on crisis response systems such as those recently employed during the U.S. hurricane season.
Research to identify areas of the food supply that are least flexible to rebound from attack is important, as are methods to minimize the vulnerability, the experts maintain.
Food economists stated that the diverse diets of American kids, adults and seniors make it difficult to choose a single food to attack that would sufficiently reach every consumer. Likewise, the diversity of suppliers producing the same products ensures the likelihood that safe food could still reach consumers in the event of attack.
However, expert economists noted that the assault on the national economy could approach $200 billion or more lost over a five-year period. The impact on interest rates, the stock market and foreign exchange would linger even well after an attack.
Researchers remarked that if an attack leads to the quarantine of a region of the country, the impact on interstate commerce would be significant, and well beyond the food and agriculture sectors. An unintentional event like an outbreak of avian flu might also create such circumstances, they said.
A specialist with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration predicted an attack on food will first be reported locally, in either sick people or animals.
"There is no food that's truly safe from attack," he said.
The conference was hosted by the Institute of Food Technologists and led by the National Center for Food Protection and Defense, a Center of Excellence with the Department of Homeland Security.
Founded in 1939, the Institute of Food Technologists is a non-profit scientific society with 22,000 members working in food science, technology and related professions in industry, academia and government. As the society for food science and technology, IFT brings sound science to the public discussion of food issues. IFT World Headquarters are located in Chicago, Illinois, USA. For more on IFT, see http://www.ift.org.