By Dan Reynolds
Scenario: Caleb Barksdale lit the end of a thick hand-rolled cigarette and took a deep pull. As he waited for the V-8 on his three-quarter-ton Chevrolet Silverado to warm up, he sipped from his portable coffee cup and tasted the mingling tannins of the coffee and the tobacco. Other ranchers might have granola and raspberries for their breakfast, but this was his.
With hands creased, scarred and stained from years of hauling feed buckets for yearlings and digging fence-post holes, Caleb steered the Chevy out the drive with the AM radio on to the country music station that came out of Laramie.
Caleb's debts were manageable, the price of beef was higher than it had been in his lifetime due, he knew, to more beef consumption in developing economies like China and India.
To make the morning even more pleasant, the music of Dolly Parton was playing on the radio.
The idea was to drive out to his primary pasture for a look at his Red Angus herd before heading into town to haggle with the feed store over his bill.
With the V-8 in full roar and his cigarette between his lips, Caleb barreled up the rutted dirt road that would get him to the crest behind his house and give him the best view of his cattle.
As soon as he hit the top of the hill he saw something that made his stomach sink. What looked like a dozen head of his cattle were down. He saw some bobbing heads among them. So they weren't all dead, evidently, but a lot of them weren't feeling good either.
What Caleb saw on that cold February morning in Wyoming was also playing out that week in Montana, Colorado, Utah, Idaho and South Dakota. It would be 10 days until laboratory tests confirmed that an outbreak of Bovine Spongifora Encephalopathy, otherwise known as Mad Cow Disease, was ravaging Western
cattle herds. It would be six more weeks until evidence pointed to feed sold in most of the western United States and parts of Canada that had been tainted with the deadly neurological disease.
What Caleb didn't know was that the domestic white supremacist terrorists, outraged by the re-election of President Barack Obama, had come up with a fiendish plan to taint feed supplies and disrupt the American economy. On a ranch in a remote section of Utah, the terrorists had bred a herd of cattle intentionally infected with mad cow disease.
When it came time to implement their plan, they slaughtered the diseased cattle and mixed their brain matter into buckets of grain, which they then dumped into silos. Just one gram of brain tissue from an affected cow will transmit the disease, and the terrorists had introduced hundreds of pounds of infected tissue into feed supplies. It took a year for evidence of the disease to surface, but when it did, outbreaks appeared all over the map.
Representatives of state agriculture departments and farm bureaus were overwhelmed, and there was nothing for regulators to do but to ban the sale of domestic beef throughout the West.
Testing by the U.S. Department of Agriculture resulted in urgent meetings with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and evidence pointed to the widespread use of the tainted feed. It proved to be almost impossible to determine which cattle were fed the tainted feed and which weren't.
The outbreak was so widespread and the virus so deadly that there was nothing for Caleb and his fellow cattle ranchers to do but shoot their cattle and bury them. Mad Cow Disease has an incubation period of between 30 months and eight years, and the ranchers could take no chances, nor would the U.S. government let them. Before the shooting would stop, more than 36 million animals would be slaughtered.
The consequences for the global supply chain would turn out to be just as dire. The cost of recalling beef and its byproducts, managing the crisis, testing feed supplies, and implementing risk management techniques, ran into the hundreds of billions of dollars. Every link in the food supply chain was affected: growers, processors, packagers, grocery stores, restaurants. Even caterers took a big hit.
The reputational damage to the U.S. beef industry and the necessity of trading nations to protect their own consumers led to a global ban on U.S. beef.
It would be five years until the ban was lifted.
In the interim, relationships between the independent-minded Caleb Barksdale and his fellow ranchers, state regulators and the federal government become strained to the breaking point.
Barksdale had always taken a jaundiced view of government. All he and his rancher friends wanted the government to do was to fight their wars, protect their borders and keep taxes in check.
But the government's failure to protect their feed supplies pushed some of the ranchers over the edge. The rhetoric on regional radio talk shows against the federal and state governments reached a dangerous pitch.
the West, pockets of ranchers banded together in efforts at civil disobedience, and they disrupted the functioning of state government by driving their surviving cattle into the streets in the state capitals of Wyoming and Montana.
In one case, disgruntled cattle owners who had staged their own
"Occupy Casper" event at City Hall, were provoked into a shootout with Wyoming State Troopers. The altercation, which came to be known as the Battle of Casper, left one rancher dead and rippled through American political waters.
Analysis: The concentrated nature of farming in the United States and the porousness of the boundaries between growing operations in our wide-open spaces make an act of agroterrorism a very real threat.
Feedlots that house thousands of cattle at a time, and other large-scale farming operations with minimal security could become targets for terrorist organizations.
The threat is low-tech and can be low cost because only a trace amount of a virus or bacteria introduced to a food system can do a lot of damage. Anthrax, smallpox, e-coli and bubonic plague are just a few of the agents that could be used.
A study by the Stanford Graduate School of Business found that a mere 4 grams of the botulinum toxin dropped into a milk production facility could result in serious illness, possibly even death for as many as 400,000 people.
But for those who study the possible occurrence of an act of agroterrorism, or significant food chain supply losses from some other event, major losses to businesses from product recalls and business interruption are the most likely outcome.
"Conventional discourse on the issue of agroterrorism typically focuses on the potential for human fatalities, but the consequential economic impact to the agricultural industry would also be quite significant," said Matthew Power, executive vice president of Lexington Insurance Co.
Add to that the damage that could be done to agriculture-dependent businesses such as food processors and retailers. "Potential ripple effects through many different levels of our economy could take place on a relatively large scale," he said.
The risk of an agriculture attack is not new because they have happened before. But as the U.S. government has achieved success in limiting risks to more capital-intensive sectors, experts think a low-tech attack like an act of agroterrorism becomes more likely.
There is a long history of intentional and unintentional introduction of viruses and other agents into livestock populations and into human food supplies.
"Attacks on livestock that were designed to weaken cavalry units took place in the Civil War and in World War I, so it is not a new phenomenon," Power said.
More recently, there was the 1984 bioterror attack by the Bagwhan Shree Rajneesh cult, which introduced salmonella into the population of The Dalles, Oregon by contaminating salad bars. The attached affected 751 people, but none died.
Agriculture and the food production and consumption system are so vulnerable, Power said, because of the open nature of growing food. "Agricultural production by its nature is geographically dispersed," Power said. "It's difficult to secure that aspect of the continuum."
There are several multipliers to the risk. In the case of a consumer ingesting the e-coli bacteria, for example, the length of time it takes to realize the nature of their illness and for the source of that illness to be traced can run into the weeks and months. Until the source of the illness is adequately reported, many more people can fall ill.
Consider the risk complications in a jar of salsa. Salsa contains tomatoes, garlic, cilantro and spices. Any one of those ingredients could be the source of an outbreak.
In the realm of insurance products to address this risk, Lexington's Power said contaminated product and crisis response coverages have a take-up rate that is relatively modest. "Too often these coverages are looked at by risk managers as discretionary purchases," Power said.
DAN REYNOLDS is managing editor of Risk & Insurance®. He can be reached at email@example.com.
April 13, 2012
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