Terror to target food chain?

London - Cattle could be on the frontline as the threat of a potential terror attack spreads from Britain's streets to its fields.

British authorities are to step up surveillance against bio-terrorism amid concerns that rogue groups could target the food chain by seeking to introduce animal diseases such as foot-and-mouth or the brain-wasting mad cow disease.

"We don't ignore the fact that there could be the deliberate introduction of viruses in the form of livestock diseases ... as an attack on our national economy," Animal Health Minister Elliot Morley told a news conference on Wednesday.

Morley said that an analysis of the threat of bio-terrorism and steps to counter illegal imports of viruses to the United Kingdom will form part of a 10-year strategy being prepared to boost animal health and welfare and food safety.

The move to protect the national herd comes as Britain launched an urgent hunt for the deadly poison ricin after traces were found in north London.

Britain's support for the United States in its war on terror and in its bid to disarm Iraq of suspected weapons of mass destruction has made it a potential target for a terror attack. Mad cow disease, formally known as Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), spread through Britain's beef herd in the 1980s and 1990s and more than 100 people have died from the human form of the disease.

United Nations weapons inspectors scouring Iraq for arms examined a foot-and-mouth vaccination laboratory in November that was allegedly a biological weapons centre in 1990.

Morley said the threat of an attack on the food chain remained theoretical but the government was considering all possible risks.

"As long as we have the effective mechanisms of surveillance, identification and reaction, it doesn't matter where the disease has come from, it's how we react to it," Morley said, launching a three-month consultation document that aims to draw up the 10-year animal health and welfare strategy.