Islamic State leaders are reportedly asking its followers to carry out terror attacks by poisoning food in Western supermarkets. It is not like poisoning our food has not happened before and we certainly have been warned. In 2011 Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned 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 2004 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.”
It reminded me of an Op-ed I did for Forbes a year or so ago:
Imagine this: At 10:00 PM, after yet another story about Donald Trump, a foreign TV network begins airing a video taken inside a facility showing someone treating wash water in a cucumber packing house with an unknown liquid. There is a claim that this was the terrorist act that has so far sickened 341 and killed 2 in 30 states with Salmonella.
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. The Donald fades into the distance.
Coming on a Thursday 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.
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. I raise the issue not because I actually think that food terrorism is the cause of this week’s Salmonella cucumber outbreak. However, 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 some, but not enough 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 Salmonella? If credit-taking terrorists were putting poison on our cucumbers, could we be certain Uncle Sam’s response would have been more robust or effective then if it was just a “regular” foodborne 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 FDA 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. If you are a food manufacturer, packer, or distributor, you are more likely to be hit by lightning 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 cucumber Salmonella 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.
So, what can we do? 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 cannot be stopped, but with investments in surveillance, the event can be minimized.