Bio-Threat to Brewing Industry? Eternal vigilance is the price of security, and the signs of vigilance are everywhere in Washington: concrete barriers ring the White House, national guardsmen patrol the US Capitol grounds, and fighter planes pass overhead.
The next target of terrorists, however, may be neither people nor buildings, but our crops. High on the list of potential targets are staple grains like wheat, corn, rice and barley―the heart and soul of American beer.
The United States is highly vulnerable to an attack by agri-terrorists, cautioned a panel of experts who spoke at the National Press Club on November 30, 2001.
“Some plant diseases are so highly contagious that it wouldn’t even take a crop duster to cause a major outbreak,” said Mark Wheelis, a microbiologist at the University of California-Davis. It might be difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish a terrorist act from a natural outbreak, letting the perpetrators go scot-free.
Among the pathogens that terrorists might employ are stem rust, which can ravage a wheat plant with the same thoroughness that smallpox can devastate a human body; powdery mildew, a fungus that gives hop growers nightmares; and fusarium, a scourge of barley. The latter produces a substance called vomitoxin. True to its name, it can make animals or people sick if they ingest enough of it. Even in amounts too small to affect humans, the toxin can cause beer to foam over, making infected barley undesirable for brewing.
“Vaccination is not an option for plants,” noted Laurence Madden, professor of plant pathology at Ohio State University. Nor can you post armed guards over more than 300 million acres of cultivated land. The best defense would be a quick and accurate diagnosis, enabling authorities to destroy infected plants and contain the blight. But “there are no central or regional facilities prepared to deal with unusual outbreaks,” he added.
Madden, who comes from Pennsylvania originally and is a fan of single malt Scotch and Yuengling beer, commented later that he “would take it very personally” if terrorists were to target the barley and hop crops.
Moonshine No More
US Rep. Bart Stupak (D-MI) has introduced legislation that would make it easier to set up micro distilleries and would legalize home production of whiskeys and brandies for the first time since Prohibition.
Stupak’s bill, HR 3249, would strike Section 5178(a)(1), subparagraph B, from the Internal Revenue Code of 1986. As it now stands, that passage states that “no distilled spirits plants…shall be located in any dwelling house, in any shed, yard, or enclosure connected with any dwelling house, …or on premises where beer or wine is made or produced, or liquors of any description are retailed, or in premises where any other business is carried on…” Violators can receive up to $10,000 in fines and up to five years in prison.
As of press time, HR 3249 was before the House Ways and Means Committee. A similar measure, HR 3602, was introduced last year but never made it past the committee level.
Even if Stupak’s bill becomes law, home distillers would still have to fill out the necessary permits and would not be exempt from taxes. The bill, explained the congressman’s press secretary, Robert Meissner, is intended to aid entrepreneurs who want to branch into spirits production, and not hobbyists who’d like to distill liquor for their own use just as they can now ferment their own beer and wine tax-free.
The Traverse City area, Meissner noted, is home to numerous winemakers, some of who might like to try marketing a brandy. Michigan also has about 60 brewpubs and microbreweries, at least one of which―Local Color Brewing Co. in Novi―has already begun distilling its own spirits.
Meanwhile, moonshiners should beware: Uncle Sam is pursuing you with his usual vigor.
In October 2001, the Treasury Department concluded Operation Lightning Strike, an eight-year crackdown that nabbed 27 bootleggers and busted a massive moonshine ring that operated from North Carolina to Pennsylvania.
As reported in the Christian Science Monitor, the Hale gang made 1.5 million gallons of liquor between 1992 and 1999, and dodged an estimated $19.6 million in taxes. Ralph Hale Sr. of Franklin County, Virginia, the alleged ringleader, faces up to life in prison for his activities.
Greg Kitsock is editor of Mid-Atlantic Brewing News, a long-time resident of Washington, DC, and a frequent contributor to beer-related publications.