By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI
SALEM -- Dairymen shouldn't hesitate to call the Federal Bureau of Investigation if they suspect potential terrorist activity, an FBI agent says.
Terrorist groups like Al Qaeda have long expressed an interest in attacking the agricultural sector, special agent Rich Baltzersen told the 2013 Oregon Dairy Farmers Convention.
"Be more vigilant," he told dairymen on Feb. 26. "Part of their planning is to probe our defenses."
Targeting the food system is attractive for terrorists because they aim to disrupt the U.S. economy and undermine confidence in the government, Baltzersen said.
Plots aimed at agriculture are relatively low-risk for terrorists but could have a major impact if successful, he said. Since it's difficult to distinguish between accidental and deliberate illness outbreaks, they also offer plausible deniability.
Agriculture-related schemes are also likely to be less expensive and require less technical expertise. For example, a terrorist introducing a livestock disease wouldn't have to use much safety equipment compared to an effort involving a human illness, Baltzersen said.
The prospect of a terrorist trying to poison the food supply is more likely to occur at the processing level, but the FBI is concerned that livestock diseases may be introduced at the farm level, he said.
The agency is particularly worried about diseases that are highly transmissible, affect multiple species, can persist in the environment and aren't native to the U.S. -- and thus won't face natural resistance, Baltzersen said.
Topping the list is foot and mouth disease, a viral disease that can infect cattle, hogs, sheep, goats and other cloven-hoofed ruminants and cause major production losses of meat and milk.
The agency is also concerned about highly pathogenic strains of avian influenza, exotic Newcastle disease, classic swine fever and African swine fever, he said.
The FBI expects that Al Qaeda-affiliated groups would be more likely to target humans while environmental and animal rights groups are more oriented toward a disruption of farming, Baltzersen said.
Jim Krahn, executive director of the Oregon Dairy Farmers Association, said he occasionally gets calls from dairymen about suspicious activity and people taking photos.
Although the assumption is that these are environmental activists, farmers should remember that terrorism is also a possibility, he said. "The reality is it's something that could happen."