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.