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Agroterrorism in the US: An Overview

K. R. Schneider, R. Goodrich Schneider, D. L. Archer, C. D. Webb, and A. Gutierrez

Since the attacks of 9/11 (the September 11 terrorism event in 2001), vulnerabilities of the nation's infrastructure have been analyzed and discussed. The United States (US) has identified the protection of national systems and infrastructure, such as the transportation, communication, water supply, and agriculture networks, as priorities to defend against terrorism.

Terrorism is widely defined as the unlawful use of force, violence, or implied harm against persons and property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any element of either, to further political, religious, or ideological aims. Agroterrorism is the deliberate introduction of detrimental agents, biological and otherwise, into the agricultural and food processing system with the intent of causing actual or perceived harm. The broad areas of agriculture that could provide targets in an agroterrorism event are farm animals and livestock, plant crops, and the food processing, distribution, and retailing system.

The term bioterrorism will be widely used in this discussion and, in fact, is closely related to agroterrorism. Bioterrorism is defined as the use of biological agents in a deliberate, harmful attack, or terrorism using the weapons of biological warfare such as anthrax, smallpox, or other pathogens. The anthrax incidents involving tainted mail that occurred shortly after the events of 9/11 can be classified as bioterrorism. In the discussion herein, biological agents can be considered the most probable weapon used to launch an agroterrorism event.

In response to these new threats, the US passed the Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act of 2002 (the Act). Recently, the FDA has increased it power to monitor and control food in the US with the passing of the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2011 (FSMA). While FSMA is not focused on preventing purposeful contamination, the new powers granted to FDA will help decrease the possibility of an attack and/or mitigate its impact. Both are considered crucial steps in combating the threat of agroterrorism. Their roles in mitigating potential threats will be further discussed in this factsheet.

Consequences of a US Agroterrorism Event

Agriculture and the food industry are important to the US economy. The USDA's Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS) estimates one person in eight works in some part of the agriculture/food sector. The US farm sector's net income in 2013 was $129 billion. Domestically, a significant portion of the US Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is related to agriculture and food production. Even without agroterrorism, livestock and crop diseases cost the US economy billions of dollars annually. These are the baseline losses to which the financial impact of an actual agroterrorism event would be added.

If an agroterrorism event occurred in the US, the potential for disruption of our export market would be immense. International trade is crucial, as it provides a market for a major part of our crop production, and a growing share of meat output. Overall, 13.5% of the US GDP was due to international trade in 2013. In 2013, the US exported agricultural products totaling $144 billion, which equates to 7–10% of all US exports. Proportionately, the US agriculture industries rely on export markets more heavily than other sectors of US industry. An agroterrorism event that instigated fear or even uncertainty in our international customers could be financially devastating to US agricultural interests.

Vulnerability of the US Agriculture System

Various factors lead to the heightened state of vulnerability of the US to an agroterrorism event. As previously discussed, agriculture, food processing, and food retailing contribute significantly to the US economy, despite the perception of the ceaseless encroachment of urban growth into rural areas. As urban growth has occurred, agricultural operations, including farms, packinghouses, and processing plants have become larger, more centralized, and more intensive. It is this type of industrial concentration that perhaps increases the vulnerability of the US agriculture system; as almost all agricultural sectors consolidate, their overall size generally increases. Thus, the impact of a targeted agroterrorism event affecting just one entity could still have a serious, adverse impact. For example, foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) confined to a very small, geographically distinct herd is a vastly different situation than FMD occurring through intentional spread of the disease in a large cattle operation. Although large operations typically have greater economies-of-scale, they also lead to these types of vulnerabilities.

There are other reasons to be aware of the need to better security in agricultural operations. It is difficult and expensive to secure large areas of farmland with fences, gates and monitoring devices. Yet, it is incumbent upon producers to provide security in these areas. Packinghouses and processing plants are more easily controlled from a physical perimeter standpoint, but conversely have more personnel that need to be screened and then trained in specifics of plant security. More and more auditors focus on specific areas where their clients can improve their procedures and practices. Defense against terrorism must become ingrained in the normal operations of all agricultural operations before the US can expect an improvement in the current state of readiness against an attack.

The Bioterrorism Act of 2002

The events of 9/11 reinforced the need to enhance the security of the United States. One broad area of vulnerability, as discussed, is the area of agriculture and specifically food production. The term food security, which traditionally meant the stability and supply of sufficient food for a given population, suddenly took on a different meaning. On June 12, 2002, the Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act of 2002 (the Act) was signed into law by then-President Bush. The FDA is responsible for developing and implementing regulations on the following major provisions of the Act: registration of food facilities, prior notice of imported food, establishment and maintenance of records, and administrative detention. The definition of food used in these regulations includes food and beverages for human and animal consumption, including dietary supplements, infant formula, and food additives. It does not, however, cover food products such as meat and poultry that are regulated by the USDA-FSIS. The Act was designed to improve the ability of the US to prevent, prepare for, and respond to bioterrorism and other public health emergencies.

Food Safety Modernization Act

Due to the continual potential of foodborne illness (including the threats to our agricultural infrastructure) the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) was signed into law on January 4, 2011. The main purpose of FSMA is to prevent the adulteration of the US food and feed supply thus enhancing food safety. FSMA was created to allow for a more proactive approach towards food safety, focusing on the most vulnerable areas for possible adulteration during food processing. This is in contrast to the largely reactive role that the FDA and the USDA have had thus far. While FSMA consists of nearly 50 new rules, regulations and guidances, there are five foundational rules that exemplify this proactive approach. These five rules cover topics such as intentional adulteration, preventative controls for human food and animal food, standards for produce safety, establishing a Foreign Supplier Verification Program for importers, and a program for the accreditation of third-party auditors. In 2014, over $119 million worth of food products were imported into the United States, which presents a major concern for possible adulteration. The Foreign Supplier Verification Program for importers and establishing a program for the accreditation of third-party auditors will help address our concerns over imported foods. Domestically, FSMA includes rules and regulations aimed at protecting the US public that include: food defense plans, compliance training, and recordkeeping. The initial cost for the first year of FSMA implementation is between $520 and $860 million. In comparison, FDA estimates the benefits of averting an actual terrorist attack on the US food supply would be approximately $130 billion. Thus, the cost of prevention is far less than a single large agroterrorism event. Overall, the FSMA seeks to maintain the public's confidence in the safety and security of our domestic and international food supply.

Prevention, Detection, and Mitigation

Ideally, terrorism aimed at the food supply would be 100% preventable. In the aftermath of 9/11, many resources were shifted from food safety to food biosecurity, with the intent to try to install sufficient deterrents that would lead to an improved condition of readiness within the agriculture and food sector. The most vulnerable activities within a food system include: bulk liquid receiving and loading, liquid storage and handling, secondary ingredient handling and mixing, and similar activities. Facilities would be responsible for evaluating these four categories and assessing which areas are the weakest in order to create a plan of action to mitigate potential threats. State and federal agencies, along with trade organizations and third-party auditors, developed better and more thorough auditing tools and checklists that focused on security aspects for processing plants, their products and their personnel.

However, experience with naturally occurring outbreaks of foodborne disease has demonstrated that no existing preventive system is 100% effective. To some degree, improved speed of detection of a bioterrorism event can help minimize impact of a particular event. After 9/11, agencies increased their inspection and analytical capabilities in response to increased needs to respond quickly to a bioterrorism threat. The anthrax incidents that occurred after 9/11, although not specifically agroterrorism, highlighted to the authorities the need for a networked system of laboratories with pathogen and toxin detection capabilities.

Mitigation is one means of dealing with an actual or threatened agroterrorism event. The FDA, through the Bioterrorism Act of 2002, is requiring all food plants to register with the agency. They are also requiring prior notice for imported food shipments, as well as better record-keeping on the part of food processors and handlers. FSMA extends the Bioterrorism Act by requiring a food defense plan that would include: training, actionable processing steps, focused mitigation strategies, monitoring, corrective actions, verification, and proper record keeping. Each of these measures in the defense plan are to protect against intentional adulteration be installing a system of checks and balance throughout a facility's production process.

Should prevention fail, public safety falls to mitigation and containment strategies. One of the reasons the FDA is requesting extensive food safety plan information is to enhance traceability of food products and the efficacy of product recalls. Recalls involve removing product from the commerce stream after they have left the distributor. Product may be in-transit, at the retail level, or even in the individual consumer's home. Retrieving the potentially contaminated product before it can be consumed is an effective way to limit the public health impact of contaminated food. Most biosecurity audits within food processing, handling, and retailing facilities now identify product recalls, and the ability to quickly and effectively execute them, as an important approach to their overall anti-terrorism strategy.


The US has not been the victim of a large-scale, successful agroterrorism attack. However, there are serious vulnerabilities within our agricultural and food processing systems that must be addressed. The Act and FSMA have sought to provide solutions to these concerns by establishing an iterative process of risk assessment, risk control, and verification of implemented deterrents. This will allow all pertinent agricultural interests, regulators, scientists, and public health officials to improve the defensive position of this key industry and to strive to reduce the threat of agroterrorism as much as possible.


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Publication #FSHN0521

Release Date:June 2, 2016

Reviewed At:August 28, 2021

Related Experts

Schneider, Keith R.


University of Florida

Goodrich-Schneider, Renee M.


University of Florida

Archer, Doug

University of Florida

Fact Sheet

About this Publication

This document is FSHN0521, one of a series of the Food Science and Human Nutrition Department, UF/IFAS Extension. Original publication date August 2005. Revised May 2015. Visit the EDIS website at for the currently supported version of this publication.

About the Authors

K. R. Schneider, associate professor; R. Goodrich Schneider, professor; D. L. Archer, associate professor; C. D. Webb, student; and A. Gutierrez; Food Science and Human Nutrition Department; UF/IFAS Extension, Gainesville, FL 32611.


  • Keith Schneider