Agroterrorism Defense: ISyE Develops Model to Assess Vulnerabilities in the Food Supply Chain

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While many people may think of high-profile terrorist targets to be sites such as skyscrapers, bridges, or nuclear power plants, the nation’s food supply is also a vulnerable target. Called “agroterrorism,” these attacks involve deliberate contamination of the food supply.

To address the agroterrorism threat, researchers at ISyE are developing a model of food supply chains that federal agencies and corporations can use to determine how best to protect the nation’s food supply from intentional acts of biological, chemical, physical, or radioactive contamination.

“Our goal is to help make sure food products are safe from farm to fork by identifying food supply chain designs that ensure a high level of system productivity, while mitigating the risk posed by intentional attacks on the food supply chain by intelligent adversaries,” said Associate Professor Alan Erera.

Erera leads the six-year, $1 million research project that began in 2010. The project is funded by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s National Center for Food Protection and Defense. Erera and Professor Chip White are using an optimization-based methodology to predict the probability of terrorist attacks at specific points in food supply chains and prioritize interventions and countermeasures based on their capability to mitigate risk and economic utility.

“We’re trying to help the government and industry understand how the structure of a food supply chain impacts the vulnerability of a food product against a contaminant such as botulinum toxin,” said White, who is also the Schneider National Chair in Transportation and Logistics at Georgia Tech. “With agroterrorism, the food is the weapon and the supply chain is the weapon delivery platform; our model assumes that the terrorists want to keep the supply chain intact and move the contaminated food product to the consumer as quickly and quietly as possible.”

The researchers are currently using the model to identify the vulnerabilities in the food supply chain for liquid eggs. Of the estimated 215 million cases of eggs produced in 2009, 30 percent were removed from their shells and turned into liquid, frozen, and dried egg products used by the food service industry and as ingredients in other foods, such as bread, mayonnaise, and ice cream.

Preliminary results from the model have shown how the liquid egg supply chain could be better protected from an attack through investments and adaptability in the production process.

Adaptability scenarios tested with the model included strategies such as reducing the amount of liquid egg in each tank, housing the liquid egg product in several facilities instead of just one, increasing the frequency of tank cleanings, changing the timing of certain activities, and increasing security.

Each of these potential changes to the production process had advantages and disadvantages that were also considered in the model. Reducing the amount of liquid egg in each tank might decrease the amount of product that could become contaminated, but it could increase production costs. While having a few smaller facilities instead of one large facility might decrease the amount of product that could become contaminated, and decrease distribution costs if the facilities were strategically geographically distributed, the change could increase production costs and the cost to protect the facilities against a threat.

“Corporations want a safer supply chain, but they also want to know how different supply chain designs and risk mitigation strategies impact cost, productivity, and vulnerability,” said Erera. “Using our model, we are beginning to identify ways that a small investment can significantly mitigate risk in the food supply chain.”

During the remaining years of the project, the researchers plan to expand the utility and authenticity of their model by conducting additional case studies using other food products. The researchers believe the case studies may lead to overarching recommendations for how different food industries can best protect their products against a terrorist attack.

This article was written by Abby Robinson and first appeared in the 2012 edition of the ISyE Alumni Magazine.


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