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Agroterrorism: How real is the threat?

By CNN's Barry Neild
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- We all know it's a dangerous world out there, but when you can't even trust a salad, you know things are getting serious.

Tonnes of spinach has been destroyed in the U.S. after an E. coli outbreak spread through the country, affecting more than 170 people and unsettling shoppers already treading a minefield of genetically modified, irradiated and chemically-tainted food.

Health experts tackling the crisis believe the source was nothing more sinister than an accidental contamination, but conspiracy theorists toyed with, then played down, more alarmist possibilities.

"I don't think this is terror related," said one posting on, a Web site that usually chews over the traditional topics of alien invasions, JFK's death and 9/11.

"If extremists were to target our food supply, I doubt that spinach would be high on their list. Americans much rather eat junk food than spinach."

However, the spinach scare has raised serious concerns about the vulnerability of our food supply to attack.

And the threat is high on the menu this week in Kansas City, where academics and experts in security and agriculture are gathering to discuss what they term "agroterrorism" -- strikes aimed at halting or contaminating food supplies.

The specter of agroterrorism first raised its head in 1984 when a member of a cult led by the Baghwan Shri Rajneesh deliberately contaminated salad bars with salmonella in 10 restaurants in the town of Dalles, Oregon.

Though it left 750 people ill, 45 hospitalized, and remains the largest bio-terrorist attack of the 20th century in the United States, the Dalles incident pales beside the kind of disaster scenarios envisioned by authorities in the wake of the September 11, 2001 al Qaeda strikes on America.

It was certainly food for thought for former U.S. health and human services secretary Tommy Thompson, who confessed nightly panics about the threat to the food supply until he resigned in 2004.

"I, for the life of me, cannot understand why the terrorists have not, you know, attacked our food supply because it is so easy to do," he said at the time of his exit.

Thompson clearly wasn't alone.

In February 2004, President George W. Bush ordered new measures to protect his country's food supply from terrorist strikes, ordering that: "We should provide the best protection possible against a successful attack ... which could have catastrophic health and economic effects."

The plan outlined the stockpiling of animal pharmaceuticals to ward against livestock disease and the development of a response mechanism in case crops were devastated by fungal infections.

Not everyone is convinced of the risk. Dr. Jean Weese, a professor of food science at the University of Tennessee, says that while the food chain is certainly vulnerable to attack, agricultural targets lack the deadly appeal of the World Trade Center or the Pentagon.

"Even if you contaminate all of the spinach in a field, although it sounds terrible to say, only one or two people die," she says. " It is not going to reach the same level of devastation as flying a plane into a building."

"Not that it couldn't be done. It could be and it could cause terror in terms of the alarm it would spread, but I don't think it would get the results the terrorists would want, which is killing a lot of people."

Of course, while governments and X-Files aficionados are digesting the possibility of such strikes, others warn that our food supplies have already been contaminated, not by extremists, but by our own cravings for bigger, better, tastier snacks.

So-called Frankenstein foods modified through genetic engineering, the use of artificial growth hormones in animals, chemicals in fertilizers and a litany of other complaints against modern agriculture are slowly undermining the health of humans and the planet, according to campaigners who are the driving force behind a burgeoning organic farming industry.

Some scientists dispute these claims, turning the blame on naturally-grown foodstuffs. They say that without the benefits of high-tech pesticides, these could carry toxic fungi capable of causing cancer, gangrene and hallucinations.

It's enough to ruin your appetite.

The spinach scare in the U.S. has focused minds on the vulnerability of our food supply.

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