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Food Security and Terrorism

After the attacks on the United States of September 11, 2001 and the subsequent scare over anthrax and other biological agents, food security and the possibility of deliberate terrorist contamination of the nation’s food supply became a real issue. The Federal Food and Drug Administration began a program of risk assessment. According to the FDA, “unlike traditional risk assessments, however, which focus on one hazard, this assessment addresses the broad range of hazards available to terrorists intending to sabotage food.”

Prior to the attacks, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had already identified Bacillus anthracis (anthrax) and Clostridium botulinum (botulism) as the two deadly food contaminants most likely to be used in a bio-terror attack. The agency also expressed concern over Salmonella spp., Shigella dysenteriae, E. coli O157:H7, and ricin, which have lower mortality rates but cause illness and are relatively easy to disseminate.

A key concern over all these contaminants is that they often occur naturally and are difficult to pin down to intentionally introduced sources. Additional concerns were expressed over toxic heavy metals and chemicals that can and do, naturally or unnaturally, occur as food contaminants: arsenic, lead, and mercury, and pesticides, dioxins, furans, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).

According to a CDC report“… [P] ublic health agencies must prepare also for the special features a terrorist attack probably would have … Terrorists might use combinations of these agents, attack in more than one location simultaneously, use new agents, or use organisms that are not on the critical list (e.g., common, drug-resistant, or genetically engineered pathogens).”

Local acts of bio-terrorism have already occurred in the United States. In 1984, for example, the members of a religious cult in The Dalles, Oregon contaminated salad bars with Salmonella in an attempt to disrupt a local election. The incident caused 751 cases of salmonellosis and resulted in the hospitalization of 45 of the victims. A number of similar cases have occurred around the world.

The problem is complex, simply because the definition of “contamination” is so broad. Terrorists may conceivably use, according to the FDA:

  • “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 that are more difficult to acquire;
  • Agents that must be weaponized and those that are accessible in a useable form.”

The FDA is particularly concerned in the light of the fact that unintentional contamination can sicken thousands of people, as was the case in 1989 when approximately 25,000 people in 30 states in the U.S. were sickened by imported Mexican cantaloupes. “It would be reasonable to assume,” according to the FDA, “that a terrorist using the food supply as a vehicle for attack would use an agent that would maximize the number of deaths associated with the contamination.

Many of these agents are the same pathogens that have been linked to significant outbreaks of foodborne illness due to unintentional contamination.” In addition to illness and death, the economic effects of such an attack could be severe. The social dislocation and outright fear engendered by such an attack could be enormous.

American troops in Afghanistan in the months following the U.S. invasion discovered in captured terrorist documents that a “significant part of the group’s training manual is reportedly devoted to agricultural terrorism—specifically, the destruction of crops, livestock, and food processing operations.” Reports from the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO), have indicated a heightened level of awareness on these issues. The FBI report stressed that seeming random acts of food contamination “are a concern to FBI because they are so difficult to detect.”

The FDA, of course, has to deal with all forms of food contamination. Terrorism may be a possibility, but foodborne illness and death, by one means or another is a certainty.

“Though the likelihood of a biological or chemical attack on the U.S. food supply is uncertain, significant scientific evidence documents the risk to public health of food that has been inadvertently contaminated. Notwithstanding the uncertainties described in this risk assessment, and given the broad range of agents that may contaminate the food supply that FDA regulates, the agency concludes that there is a high likelihood, over the course of a year, that a significant number of people will be affected by an act of food terrorism or by an incident of unintentional food contamination that results in serious foodborne illness.”

According to CDC estimates, 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations, and 5,000 deaths occur annually in the United States due to foodborne pathogens that have been presumed to have been accidentally introduced into the national food system. The prospect of intentional introduction of these extremely varied but deadly agents by terrorist elements brings the issue into an entirely new focus.