Header graphic for print
Marler Blog Providing Commentary on Food Poisoning Outbreaks & Litigation

Who Poisoned the Cookie Dough?

What if the cookie dough E. coli outbreak actually happened this way?

At 10:00 PM last night between yet another story about Michael Jackson’s death, a foreign Network begin airing a video taken inside a manufacturing facility showing someone treating a batch of cookie dough 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. Michael Jackson fades into the distance.

Coming on a Friday evening 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 to mark another anniversary of 9/11, not because I actually think that food terrorism really is the cause of this week’s E. coli cookie dough outbreak, but I wonder if it would 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.

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 little movement to ensure this.

Would the fact of terrorists operating from inside a manufacturing facility somewhere inside the United States bring more or effective resources to the search for the source of the E. coli? If credit-taking terrorists were putting poison on our cookies, 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?

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 cookie dough E. coli 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.

  • As we allocate $600 billion to the Pentagon and only $2.4 billion to the FDA, perhaps, as a nation of 300 million eaters, we should consider the impact of this budget allocation and its far reaching implications.

  • From and email from Chuck:
    Interesting blog but I think food terrorism at the plant level is unlikely (could happen but not likely). Drive through the Midwest and look at the unguarded grain silos, miles from nowhere and easily accessible. Doctoring one silo containing tons of corn or wheat that will soon be shipped to several locations for further processing could result in an outbreak of food borne illness that would be almost completely untraceable. The flour or processed corn from those mills might be shipped to dozens of food processing facilities, producing hundreds of products.
    For a terrorist attack on the American food supply, silos are an easier target and a much more effective use of a bad guy’s resources.

  • While industrial sabotage on a wide scale is possible, the fact is local intentional food contamination events occur regularly. We know through surveys that about 30% of food service employees have witnessed or particpated in small scale malicious contamination events, or have not cated when unintentional contamination was noted. I have devised a risk assessment model for food security (part of a national food defense strategy). Any food service operator interested is free to contact me to get the questionnaire and formulae.

  • John Munsell

    Mr. Marler stated above “Secretary Thompson said more inspectors and more traceability are keys to our food defense and safety”. While his statement is erudite, it also runs contrary to the current HACCP method of government oversight of the food industry. Under HACCP, the government is to embrace a “Hands Off” role in meat inspection, by its own admission in multiple public hearings in the mid-late 90’s. USDA also stated that under HACCP, the industry is to police itself, and the government will no longer police the industry. And, USDA stated that under HACCP, the agency would disband its previous command and control authority. Realizing these government promises, it makes no sense to hire more inspectors. It makes sense to anyone who endorses the ideas of safe food and public health, but it is anathema to government regulatory authorities and the multi-national food companies. How about traceback? Well, USDA has been providing lip service to this idea since 1999, but its policies have been constructed to artificially prevent tracebacks to the true origin of contamination. Why? Because tracebacks to the “enteric” origin of E.coli and Salmonella outbreaks by necessity will end up at slaughter establishments, since these bacteria emanate from animals’ intestines, and from manure-covered hides. So, if USDA successfully accomplished tracebacks to the slaughter house of origin, these tracebacks would be greatly embarrassing to the agency because (1) they would reveal that USDA is asleep at the wheel (by its own design), and (2) it would reveal that the large multinational slaughter plants continue to ship large amounts of pathogen-laced meat into commerce, proudly bearing the official USDA Mark of Inspection which states “USDA Inspected and Passed”. Well, passed indeed, but frequently NOT inspected. How can USDA closely inspect meat operations when it has aggressively embraced a “Hands Off” role, while jettisoning its previous command and control authority. USDA however does stay EXTREMELY busy while greatly intensifying its scrutiny at small plants. Huh? Yup, because small plants are much easier enforcement prey than the big plants. Small plants lack the political clout and financial wherewithal (enjoyed by the big plants) to engage the agency in protracted litigation when USDA implements its unethical actions, which are an everyday occurrence at these hapless small plants. Suffice it to say, USDA revels in its new-found semi-retirement role at the big plants, gratis the HACCP Hoax sales job. The big packers also love HACCP, because it has resulted in reduced government oversight, and fewer hassles. If you were a USDA inspector, would you feel comfortable challenging one of those powerful multinational conglomerates when you observe ongoing pathogen problems? Nope! Let the big boys police themself, because according to USDA, this is part and parcel of a “science based” meat inspection system. Reminds me of the tried and failed “science based” new math which was foisted upon America a few decades ago. John Munsell