SPOKANE — While it may not be as horrific as an attack on humans, bioterrorism against Washington state’s crops and farm animals could cripple the multibillion-dollar food industry.
The production and processing of food is a $29 billion industry in Washington, accounting for about 20 percent of the state’s economy.
If American consumers were led to believe that the food supply was contaminated, "the risks to the economic underpinnings of agriculture would be immense," said James Cook of Washington State University.
Cook, a plant pathologist, spent the past year working on a National Academy of Sciences panel on biological threats to crops and animals. The findings are due next year.
Farmers and ranchers in Washington are particularly vulnerable to economic ruin even from the threat of bioterrorism because much of the food produced here is exported to other countries.
A drop in export sales would surge through the state’s 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 Washington Department of Agriculture.
The nature of agriculture demands that scientists and government be ready for problems, Cook said.
Each year, different bugs and germs attack plants and animals, keeping researchers busy combatting outbreaks, he said.
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.
Especially at risk for disease outbreaks, either deliberate or accidental, 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," said state veterinarian Robert Mead. "We also have to watch bogus claims. They can hurt us just as bad by not doing anything but claiming that they have."
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 farm fields.
Most of the wheat grown in the Pacific Northwest is shipped to Islamic countries, Borck said.
"If there is an opportunity out there, it would be in creating distrust of food safety," said Cook.
One such case was a cranberry scare about 30 years ago, when a holiday news report indicated that a herbicide used for cranberries was shown to cause cancer in laboratory rats.
The scare later proved false, Cook said, but not before the scare nearly ruined the cranberry industry when American families didn’t buy the Thanksgiving Day staple.
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