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.

  • Sam

    Though your points are valid, and just as terrifying as anything Dick Cheney ever said or did, I fear a TSA style approach to food defense. Anyone who believes air travel is safer due to the efforts of our government has been fooled. Imagine being searched as you enter your food manufacturing workplace, or standing in long lines to get through supermarket security checkpoints. Armed guards at the butcher counter. Hazmat teams monitoring produce sections. Shoppers being stopped at random by armed sampling authorities seeking contaminated apple juice. AND, a whole new department under Homeland security creating thousands of new jobs!
    I will be happy to offer my consulting services for a nominal fee, depending on how much money you have.

  • Chelsea

    How many more warnings do we need?

    Federal recognition of the threat of agroterrorism and/or agricultural bio-weapons clearly exists in the government, academia, and the press prior to 2000. For example, the Gilmore Commission, in its first report to Congress in 1999, noted that:

    “…a biological attack against an agricultural target offers terrorists a virtually risk-free form of assault, which has a high probability of success and which also has the prospect of obtaining political objectives, such as undermining confidence in the ability of government or giving the terrorists an improved bargaining position.”

    However, agriculture and food production generally have received relatively less attention, and were sometimes overlooked, in counter-terrorism and homeland security.

    Since September 11, 2001 the legal steps taken to address the increasing concern of agriculture’s vulnerability to a deliberate attack on the United State’s livestock, poultry, agriculture, or food production have left these industries inadequately regulated and unprotected. Jurisdictional conflict and unnecessary duplication of efforts between uncoordinated agencies remain. New laws have created an undue burden on members of the agricultural industry without providing agency accountability or consistent enforceability. The current food safety system does not sufficiently protect, coordinate, or regulate the agriculture and food industries in a way that adequately or efficiently safeguards against the threat of a biological attack on our nation’s food source.

    As you know, the safety and quality of the U.S. food supply is governed by a complex system that is administered by at least fifteen agencies. These principle agencies operate under numerous laws giving them different regulatory and enforcement authorities, and about 70 interagency agreements. The federal system is supplemented by the states, which have their own statutes, regulations, and agencies for regulating and inspecting the safety and quality of food products. This leads to confusion, conflict, unnecessary duplication of effort, and provides no single contact for consumers or industry members.