U.S. Department of Justice


Date of this Version



U.S. Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs National Institute of Justice, (December 2006)


Terrorists seeking to strike a blow at the U.S. economy need look no further than the Nation’s heartland for a “soft” target. An agroterrorist attack could dramatically impact many aspects of American life, including local law enforcement, which— especially in rural areas—is financially and strategically unprepared to respond.

Agricultural experts say that today they are most concerned about the intentional introduction of foot-and mouth disease (FMD) into the food supply. Twenty times more infectious than smallpox, FMD causes painful blisters on the tongues, hooves, and teats of cloven-hoofed animals (like cows, pigs, goats, and deer), rendering them unable to walk, be milked, eat, and drink. Although people generally cannot contract FMD, they can carry the virus in their lungs up to 48 hours and transmit it to animals. The animal-to-animal airborne-transmission range of FMD is 50 miles.

The introduction of FMD in the United States—with its generally open and difficult-to-protect farms, fields, and feedlots—would require the mass slaughter of animals and the disposal of potentially millions of animal carcasses. It could halt the domestic and international sale of meat and meat products for months or even years. Based on the FMD outbreak in the United Kingdom in 2001, researchers estimate that an attack against the American livestock industry could cost taxpayers up to $60 billion.

Who Would Lead the Response?

Many believe that public health officials would lead the response to an agroterrorism attack, but this might not be the case. The laws of most States require that such an event be handled as a crime scene investigation, giving law enforcement primary responsibility. Ill-equipped to handle the magnitude of responsibilities that would follow an act of agroterrorism, local police departments would be pushed to the limit.

Research points to the first priority of local law enforcement after an agroterrorist attack: establishing and enforcing a 6-mile radius quarantine (113 square miles) around the point of origin to control the spread of the virus. The second priority would be to set up statewide roadblocks to enforce stop-movement orders. Such a tremendous effort— requiring that all vehicles coming into or going out of the impacted State be stopped and inspected— would require a coordinated response by local, State, and Federal officials.

Evidence, including tissue from infected animals, would have to be collected. All cloven-hoofed animals (both domestic and wild) within the affected area would have to be destroyed and disposed of. A full-scale criminal investigation would have to be launched, including the identification, apprehension, and prosecution of suspects.