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Marler Blog Providing Commentary on Food Poisoning Outbreaks & Litigation

Terrorists Seek to Poison Food at U.S. Restaurants, Hotels

Osama_bin_Laden_Ayman_al_Zawahiri_25.jpgSo, says the headline this morning. Apparently, the U.S. Homeland Security Department this year identified a terrorist plan to contaminate salad bars and buffets at restaurants and hotels with lethal materials. The strikes involving ricin and cyanide would have occurred during one weekend at a significant number of establishments. The plot was “credible,” according to an intelligence insider. Here to me is the take-away quote:

“Initially it would look very much like food poisoning,” said Susan Ford, a pharmaceutical sciences professor at St. John’s University in New York.

Go figure?  This should sound familiar to readers of this blog in August 2008 – Keep reading – “Who Poisoned our Peppers?:

What if the great 2008 Tomato, right Pepper, Salmonella Outbreak actually happened this way?

At 10:00 PM last May 30th, on the same day New Mexico asked for help from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) with a growing outbreak of Salmonella Saintpaul, a foreign Network begin airing a video taken inside a fresh produce distribution center showing workers treating peppers with an unknown liquid. There is a claim that this is a terrorist act.

In the next 15 minutes, every network news operation is playing the video. The broadcast networks break into regular programming to air it, and the cable news stations go nonstop with the video while talking heads dissect it.

Coming on a Friday afternoon on the East Coast, the food terrorism story catches the mainstream Media completely off guard. Other than to say the video is being analyzed by CIA experts, and is presumed to be authentic, there isn’t much coming out of the government.

Far-fetched? Don’t count on it. I have been saying for years that a foodborne illness outbreak will look just like the terrorist act described above, but without the video on FOX News. Far-fetched?

Tell that to the 751 people in Wasco County, Oregon—including 45 who required hospital stays—who in 1984 ate at any one of ten salad bars in town and were poisoned with Salmonella by followers of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. The goal was to make people who were not followers of the cult too sick to vote in county elections.

Tell that to Chile, where in 1989, a shipment of grapes bound for the United States was found laced with cyanide, bringing trade suspension that cost the South American country $200 million. It was very much like a 1970s plot by Palestinian terrorists to inject Israel’s Jaffa oranges with mercury.

Tell that to the 111 people, including 40 children, sickened in May 2003 when a Michigan supermarket employee intentionally tainted 200 pounds of ground beef with an insecticide containing nicotine.

Tell that to Mr. Litvenenko, the Russian spy poisoned in the UK with polonium-laced food.

Tell that to Stanford University researchers who modeled a nightmare scenario where a mere 4 grams of botulinum toxin dropped into a milk production facility could cause serious illness and even death to 400,000 people in the United States.

The reason I bring this up is not only because we are about to mark the seventh anniversary of 9/11, but because I wonder if food terrorism really had been the cause of this year’s Salmonella Saintpaul outbreak, would it have made any difference in our government’s ability to figure out there was an outbreak, to figure out the cause, and to stop it before it sickened so many.

Would the fact of terrorists operating from inside a fresh produce distribution center somewhere inside the United States or Mexico brought more or effective resources to the search for the source of the Salmonella Saintpaul? If credit-taking terrorists were putting poison on our peppers, could we be certain Uncle Sam’s response would have been more robust or effective then if it was just a “regular” food illness outbreak?

After 9/11, Health & Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson said: “Public health is a national security issue. It must be treated as such. Therefore, we must not only make sure we can respond to a crisis, but we must make sure that we are secure in defending our stockpiles, our institutions and our products.”

Before Thompson’s early exit from the Bush Administration, he did get published the “Risk Assessment for Food Terrorism and Other Food Safety Concerns.” That document, now 5-years old, let the American public know that there is a “high likelihood” of food terrorism. It said the “possible agents for food terrorism” are:

• Biological and chemical agents

• Naturally occurring, antibiotic-resistant, and genetically engineered substances

• Deadly agents and those tending to cause gastrointestinal discomfort

• Highly infectious agents and those that are not communicable

• Substances readily available to any individual and those more difficult to acquire, and

• Agents that must be weaponized and those accessible in a use able form.

After 9/11, Secretary Thompson said more inspectors and more traceability are keys to our food defense and safety. To date, we’ve made no movement to ensure this.

So would the fact of a terrorist group operating from a produce distribution center inside the United States or Mexico have brought more or effective resources to the search for the source of Salmonella Saintpaul? If credit-taking terrorists were putting poison on our peppers, could we be certain that Uncle Sam’s response would be more robust, more effective than if it was just a “regular” food illness outbreak?

Absolutely not! The CDC publicly admits that it manages to count and track only one of every forty foodborne illness victims, and that its inspectors miss key evidence as outbreaks begin. The FDA is on record as referring to themselves as overburdened, underfunded, understaffed, and in possession of no real power to make a difference during recalls, because even Class 1 recalls are “voluntary.” If you are a food manufacturer, packer, or distributor, you are more likely to be hit by lightening than be inspected by the FDA. You are perfectly free to continue to sell and distribute your poisoned product, whether it has been poisoned accidentally or intentionally.

The reality is that the Salmonella Saintpaul outbreak is a brutal object lesson in the significant gaps in our ability to track and protect our food supply. We are ill prepared for a crisis, regardless of who poisons us.

Somewhere between the farm and your table, our Uncle Sam got lost.

  • Minkpuppy

    What’s worrisome to me about this is the fact that they planned to use ricin and sodium cyanide. These are 2 things anyone can produce in their own homes and no one would be the wiser. There’s absolutely no need to order the substances themselves or any chemicals to produce them. All you need is a makeshift home chemistry set, a seed catalog and a trip to the grocery store or Wal-mart.

    For ricin, all you need to do is get ahold of some castor beans and extract the castor oil–the ricin is found in the watery pulp left over. It’s a simple task from there to purify the ricin.

    Anyone with a chemistry background can produce sodium cyanide through the reaction of hydrogen cyanide and sodium hydroxide. Sodium hydroxide is a common ingredient in drain cleaners. Hydrogen cyanide can be produced from bitter almonds and fruits with pits.

    I vaguely recall a guy being found dead in a hotel room out in Nevada or someplace a few years ago that had been making ricin. He was one of our homegrown whackos–I can’t remember what the FBI thought he was going to do with the stuff. Fortunately, human error took him out.

    Terrorists can easily fly under the radar when it comes to manufacturing this stuff. Introducing it into the food on a buffet line is the hard part of the whole scheme but they could easily pull that off as well. I’ve never had a restaraunt employee watching me go through the buffet or salad bar.

  • While at a WAFFP conference in 2006 this subject was discussed by a representative from the FDA. They were very concerned about the vulnerability of a terrorist action affecting large numbers of people due to the nature of our food product / distribution system being more and more centralized. This is another reason to support and develop more locally produced food / agriculture. Granted it’s not going to be a total solution but, we’ve got to start somewhere. With the development of larger numbers of small scale food production facilities, those operators need to be willing to learn and implement appropriate Good Manufacturing Practices, HAACP if scale appropriate and be willing to cooperate with inspection authorities such as the WSDA and FDA. View them as quality control professionals instead of adversaries. And likewise on the government side they need to be willing to provide the inspection oversight of potentially 100 or more small plants instead of sending an inspection team to just one. Budgets and how inspection services will be paid for will be an issue for everyone.