Nearly 300 people were sick before the current salmonella outbreak could be tracked to a peanut butter processor in Georgia, CBS News correspondent Bob Orr reports. Two hundred others were ill and three people had died by the time scientists traced last fall's E. coli contamination to California spinach.
Both accidental outbreaks underscore a frightening reality: Once a poison or bio-agent infects America's food chain, it's hard to detect — and even harder to stop making the U.S. food supply an inviting target for terrorists.
"This is the new fight, the battleground since 9/11," says John Perren, who runs the FBI office handing weapons of mass destruction.
Perren says so-called "agro-terrorism" is a real threat from "farm to fork."
While terrorists have not made a move against U.S. agriculture, bio-weapons researcher Jerry Jaxx says it would be easy to taint the food supply or damage America's $2 trillion farm economy.
"Certainly, these are risks that are very, very real," says Jaxx.
The most worrisome agro-weapon is "foot and mouth," a highly contagious disease that doesn't hurt people — but ravages livestock.
It was wiped out in the U.S. 80 years ago, but it remains a threat in much of the world. In 2001, 4 million infected animals in the United Kingdom had to be slaughtered and burned.
Food experts warn a single outbreak of foot and mouth disease in the U.S., whether triggered by an accident or a terrorist, could cause much greater damage. Millions of cattle would have to be destroyed, and economic losses could run into the tens of billions of dollars.
The foot and mouth virus could be easily carried to the United States from an infected area by a tourist or a terrorist. Experts say reporting on this vulnerability — and other food-related risks — does not help terror groups. They already have the information.
Scientists are fighting back. CBS News got an exclusive look at a first-of-its- kind, yet-to-be-opened Agriculture Biosecurity Center at Kansas State University. Investigators there will work to identify emerging bio-threats, handling some of the most lethal pathogens, from E. coli to anthrax to foot and mouth.
"If we were to have some sort of an outbreak, we have a place to really deal with the science involved in trying to figure out how best to respond," Jaxx says.
The research will improve defenses against both deliberate and accidental contamination. Biologist Doug Powell says consumers should not overly worry about food-related threats.
"Agro-terrorism is always there. It's like food-borne illness in a way, in that you don't really know where it's going to come from next, so your best prevention is constant vigilance," Powell says.
An awareness that America's food supply, while the safest in the world, will never be completely free from risk.
Copyright 2007 CBS. All rights reserved.