Agro-terrorism Triggers and Tripwires

Continuous deliveries of cattle, feed ingredients and other supplies could leave feedyards vulnerable to accidental or intentional introduction of pathogens. ( John Maday )

Editor’s Note: This is the second installment of a three-part series on agro-terrorism, featuring speakers from the 2018 U.S. Animal Health Association Meeting. Read part one here.

The goal of agro-terrorism is unique. It is meant to disrupt the economy by specifically targeting animals and crops with diseases that may not have a direct effect on human health. These are considered “low-skill” or “low-tech” threats, but the effects can include significant impacts on agricultural production, export markets, food security and economic and national security.

Stephen Goldsmith, DVM, and Kathleen Giles, both with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Biological Countermeasures Unit, spoke at the 2018 U.S. Animal Health Association Annual Meeting, where they shared insights on espionage and terrorism threats to agriculture.

“’If you can’t buy it, steal it; if you can’t steal it, buy it.’ That’s the mantra of espionage,” Goldsmith says. “We have to look at any unexplained, unusual disease incident, and we have to know. That’s something [veterinarians and producers] should be concerned about.”

Due to current world threats, the speakers said, the U.S. must differentiate disease incidents between:

  • Expected (normal) background levels or variations of endemic production diseases
  • Accidental introductions
  • Natural introductions
  • Intentional disease introductions: criminal, terrorism, espionage or sabotage should be considered as possibilities

Although accidental or natural sources are more likely, officials still have to rule-in or rule-out all possibilities.

Tools of the trade
Law enforcement officials use tripwires and triggers frequently, Goldsmith says. Triggers are the first signs or traces of unusual behavior, activities, threats, or disease incidents that are recognized as abnormal or suspicious. Tripwires are specific, agreed-upon threshold levels of jointly recognized triggers that criminal-epidemiological investigators use to activate notification and information-sharing of standard operating procedures, he explains. An example might be the simultaneous or rapidly spreading outbreak of a novel, emerging, or recognized animal disease or plant pathogen in multiple geographic locations with no epidemiological link (like porcine epidemic diarrhea virus [PEDv]).

“Interagency tripwire initiatives are community outreach tools for reporting triggers and investigating suspicious incidents,” he says.

Animal- and plant-health tripwires include:

  • Presumptive or confirmed laboratory diagnosis of notifiable high consequence animal/plant diseases
  • Initial investigations of highly suspicious, unusual, or suspected foreign or emerging animal or exotic plant diseases
  • Simultaneous or rapidly spreading outbreaks of a novel, emerging or recognized animal disease or plant pathogen in multiple geographic locations with no epidemiological link (like PEDv)
  • Reports of suspicious activity, threats or criminal actions at agricultural facilities
  • Unusual, unexplained disease incidents with mass morbidity/mortality in livestock, wildlife, domestic animals, zoo animals, crops, orchards or forests

Ag intellectual property, biotech and research are critical national-security resources no less important that other defense strongholds, Giles says. A large-scale threat to the agriculture sector may arise via multiple routes:

  • Agro-terrorism (intentional): Intent to cause economic and social disruption, which may also threaten public health, depending on agent used
  • Foreign animal diseases (unintentional): Non-domestic diseases, endemic overseas, may affect food animals, horses or wildlife, with increased threat due to large-scale movement of animals; illicit trade; climate change; and vector movement
  • Emerging animal diseases and zoonoses: Emerging infectious disease events continue to increase.

Information-sharing is critical
Collaboration is the key to efficient, effective response to agro-terrorism activities, Giles says.

 Law enforcement or intelligence information serves many purposes:

  • Warns animal and plant health investigators of possible threats
  • Identifies and protects possible targets
  • Prevents or detects a biological attack
  • Reduces the effects of an outbreak
  • Identifies the disease source and how it was introduced

Information on animal and plant health information helps law enforcement officials:

  • Detect and interrupt on-going acts of bioterrorism
  • Identify and apprehend perpetrators for prosecution and conviction in court
  • Identify threat agents to protect safety of investigators
  • Identify/preserve a crime scene and forensic evidence

The benefits of early information-sharing can’t be overstated.

“That’s why we’re here,” Giles says. “If you’re not sharing information, we can’t stop a potential attack. That’s why we have all these working groups – there aren’t enough of us. I’m going to gain from [veterinarians’ and producers’] expertise. Those of us in the field need your veterinary [and farm] expertise when we do interviews.”

Read Part 1 of this Series here.

Editor’s Note: Look for Part 3 of this series later this week. If you’re interested in topics like this, as well as important animal health updates, attend the 2019 USAHA-AAVLD Annual Meeting, Oct. 24-30, at the Rhode Island Convention Center in Providence, RI. For more information, go to: