Food Terror: Indigestion For Security Experts

December 12, 2001

Although the US food supply remains among the safest in the world, it also remains a point of vulnerability to terrorist attack. Before the recent postal anthrax attack, the only significant bio-terror attack in the US used salad bars as a vehicle. In 1984, followers of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh infected Oregon townspeople with salmonella in hopes of suppressing election turnout so their own candidate could win.

Improvements and precautions in the food-handling system can not only prevent attacks with bioterror agents, but also reduce incidence of more commonly occurring (but equally deadly) natural pathogens such as E. coli O157:H7.

The General Accounting Office for years has pressed Congress to consolidate USDA and FDA inspection programs. According to the Associated Press, the FDA has 750 inspectors to oversee 55,000 plants producing food other than meat and poultry, while the USDA has roughly 10 times the personnel to cover 6,000 plants.

In a series of reports in September and October, the GAO reported fragmented coordination among federal agencies and warned of concerns about state and local preparedness. (See GAO website: Bioterrorism: Coordination and Preparedness (GAO-02-129T), Food Safety: CDC Is Working to Address Limitations in Several of Its Foodborne Disease Surveillance Systems (GAO-01-973,) and Bioterrorism: Federal Research and Preparedness Activities (GAO-01-915.)

According to Worldwatch's Brian Halwell, meat-processing facilities are particularly vulnerable to bioterrorism attacks. High production and high staff turnover would make it easy to contaminate millions of pounds of ground beef, hot dogs, or coldcuts with readily obtainable E. coli, salmonella, or listeria. (See "The Bioterror In Your Burger.")

Sen. Bill Frist M.D., R-Tenn. and Sen. Teddy Kennedy (D-Mass), on Nov. 15 introduced the Bioterrorism Preparedness Act of 2001, a $3.2-billion effort to protect food and agriculture from bioterror threats and attacks.

You may find local angles in your local farm and food processing industries and your local food distribution and handling chains. What precautions do packing houses, restaurants, and food chains take, and how well are they overseen by local, state, and national health authorities?