I was reading this morning yet another warning about using food as a vehicle of terrorism. This time it was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warning of infectious disease outbreaks caused by pathogens falling into the wrong hands and into our food. She said:
“Unfortunately the ability of terrorists and other non-state actors to develop and use these weapons is growing. Therefore this must be a renewed focus of our efforts.”
“Because there are warning signs and they are too serious to ignore.”
“Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula had urged brothers with degrees in microbiology or chemistry to develop a weapon of mass destruction.”
Sound familiar? It should. In 2005 Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson warned of food-related terrorist attacks. He said:
“For the life of me, I cannot understand why the terrorists have not attacked our food supply because it is so easy to do.”
And, it is not like it has not happened already. In 1984, members of an Oregon religious commune tried to influence a local election by poisoning a salad bar with Salmonella to sicken voters. 751 people became ill. It took nearly a year for health officials to determine that the attack was in fact terrorism. This attack took place at a local restaurant, but an attack could occur at any point between farm and your table. Since we inspect only about 1% of imported food that food could be tainted with biological or chemical agents before entering the United States. Given also the lack of inspections domestically, toxins could easily be introduced in food at the farm, in transit, at processing plant or in restaurants.
More and better inspections by FDA and FSIA inspectors at various points in our food supply are absolutely necessary, as is good intelligence work by those at the CDC and FBI. However, when a terrorist uses a biological or chemical weapon against the civilian population – in food or otherwise, how quickly the outbreak is detected, analyzed, understood and addressed would be the responsibility of state and local public health offices and the CDC. Surveillance would be the key to limiting the damage and bringing the terrorists to justice.
We need to invest in the science of epidemiology and the surveillance of biological and chemical illnesses. We need to increase our laboratory capacity for biological and chemical agents, and our ability to quickly track patterns of potential illnesses. And, we need to strengthen the teamwork between state, local and federal health officials so outbreaks are caught early.
Perhaps a foodborne bio-terrorism event can not be stopped, but with investments in surveillance, the event can be minimized.