Attack upon an enemy’s food supply is a concept developed and used since the time of the Ancient Greeks. The infiltration of an opposing food source is one of the most effective and lethal means of impacting a society. Food terrorism potentially brings about not only morbidity and mortality, but also widespread panic, mistrust in the government, the food system, disruption to daily life, and massive economic losses.
Few Americans understand the true impact of such an event. While the largest events of intentional food contamination in the U.S. have been reported due to admittance of guilt by the committing party, it is the underlying trend of foodborne illness that provides the perfect breeding ground for food terrorism to go unnoticed. While the notion of intentional food contamination is not a new idea, the increasing globalization of food production and processing is creating a fertile environment for terrorist activity. Current U.S. food imports account for 83% of all U.S. seafood being imported, $70 billion worth of agricultural products imported but only 1.1% of all foods imported into the U.S. are inspected.2,3
Perhaps the best-known example of food terrorism was the contamination of 10 salad bars in Oregon in 1984 by the Rajneeshee cult. This particular event was aimed at changing voter output and resulted in 751 individuals being infected with Salmonella typhimurium. It is important to note that this event, much like previous attacks, was only identified after the conspirators were arrested. The Rajneeshee cult members admitted their guilt of this previously thought, naturally occurring event, one year after the incident. In 2003, a grocery store worker was accused of poisoning 200 lbs. of ground beef with an insecticide, causing 40 cases of illness. Food terrorism also can cause economic and trade implications.
Microbial agents often make efficient biological threats in that they are found naturally in soils, waters, plants, and animals. The agents that can be used as weapons are extremely diverse (viruses, bacteria, toxins, protozoa, etc.). Microorganisms are unique in their characteristics as a weapon (compared to chemical) in that they are extremely small, resistant to environmental degradation and chemical inactivation, have lengthy incubation period, and replicate once inside the host.4 Dr. Schwabb from Johns Hopkins Center for Health Preparedness discusses the importance of biological agents as a Weapon of Mass Destruction (WMD) in that “it can take only a few hours to go from having one microorganism to millions of infectious agents and in some cases it requires exposure to only a few pathogens to initiate a deadly infection.”4
There are also a number of surveillance systems in place to track and identify trends within foodborne illness. Through the collaboration between local health departments, the CDC, FDA, and USDA, there is FoodNet, PulseNet, CaliciNet, and syndromic surveillance systems such as RODS and BioSense.5
The most difficult aspect of intentional food contamination is the rapid diagnosis of its true nature. The ability to respond to such an event is skewed by the speed of healthcare recognition, reporting by state agencies to the federal government, and in many cases, an event that may occur over multiple states and geographical boundaries. Bioterrorism within the food system is made especially difficult by the sheer magnitude of biological agents that can be used. The first difficulty with identifying an outbreak, let alone a foodborne outbreak, is whether the affected individual seeks out medical attention. Secondly, misdiagnosis of the agent or the healthcare provider simply diagnosing it as basic food poisoning without taking samples occurs frequently. The misdiagnoses that are associated just with botulism are Gullain‐Barre, Myastehnia gravis, stroke, intoxication, Lamber‐Eaton syndrome, and tick paralysis.6
Epidemiological research performed during thesis work used provided FDA data sets of outbreaks from five involved regions, etiology, months, seasons, and location of outbreaks were statistically analyzed using STATA through stepwise regression. Descriptive statistics revealed the highest frequency of salmonella agents, followed by E .coli and “unknown” as the most common etiologies, with the most common vehicle for illness being fruit. The summer months and the Northern Central states (Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Missouri, North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Minnesota, and Iowa) were the most statistically significant geographical locations of these outbreaks.
There is overwhelming vulnerability due to global sourcing and inspection mechanisms targeted towards crop pests, rather than food safety/defense risk based sampling methods (which have only been added to the sampling process in recent years). Simply put, the U.S. food supply is extremely vulnerable to intentional food contamination. Whether this threat is foreign or domestic, it is apparent that even with Presidential Directives 9 and 10 (9 being focused solely on threats to the U.S. agricultural and food systems, while 10 is focused more on biological threats as a whole), increasing awareness and technology, it is extremely difficult to identify a terrorist event after it has occurred.7,8
The need for increased security via technological tracking of carrier vehicles and shipments, as well as microbial risk assessment and modeling, are aspects that must be addressed by the public health system, food distributors and consumers. An event of intentional contamination can cause death, illness, hysteria, loss of trust within agencies, disruption of everyday life, and sometimes, complete economic collapse of the particular food industry.
The FDA dataset analyzed showed, through negative binomial regression, that geographical location, vehicle of transmission, year, and location are all statistically significant. While certain years can be correlated with foodborne illness events, descriptive statistics show that most events occur during the summer months at restaurants, in salads and proteins, and from an unknown agent. The simple truth is that unless the culprit(s) of intentional food contamination make their guilt known, it is extremely difficult to assess a foodborne outbreak as intentional. In all, this project has shown that there is a desperate need to increase inspection of imported foods, foster surveillance systems to report clusters of foodborne illnesses, and introduce microbial risk assessment and event modeling into public health education. Secondarily, communication among all interrelated food systems and enhanced quality assurance with food supply channel members as well as increased education of the public on food system vulnerability, are required. Food terrorism is a very real threat, especially given its capacity to “fly under the radar”, which highlights the extreme vulnerability of the U.S. food supply.
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2Nucci M, Dellava J, Cuite C, Hallman W. The US Food Import System: Issues, Processes, and Proposals. Rutgers New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station. 2008.
3U.S. food imports rarely inspected. MSNBC. 2007. Accessed on March 22, 2013. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/18132087/ns/health-diet_and_nutrition/
4 Biological Agents of Water and Foodborne Bioterrorism. Dr. Kellogg Schwab. Johns Hopkins Center for Health Preparedness. TRAMS Online Training Center. Accessed on March 11, 2013. http://trams.jhsph.edu/trams/index.cfm?event=training.launch&trainingID=111.
5United States Department of Agriculture. Economic Research Service. U.S. Food Imports. March 23, 2013. http://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/us-food-imports.aspx#.UU3-KaU8htc
6 University of Minnesota, National Center for Food Protection and Defense. Stinson T, Kinsey J, Degeneffe D, Ghosh K. How Should America’s Anti-Terrorism Budget Be Allocated? Findings from a National Survey of Attitudes of U.S. Residents about Terrorism. The Food Industry Center. 2006.
7U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Homeland Security Presidential Directive 9: Defense of United States Agriculture and Food. 2004. Accessed on February 23, 2010. http://www.dhs.gov/xabout/laws/gc_1217449547663.shtm
8U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Homeland Security Presidential Directive 10: Biodefense for the 21st Century. 2004. Accessed on February 23, 2010. http://www.dhs.gov/xabout/laws/gc_1217605824325.shtm.
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Saskia Popescu, PhD, MPH, MA, CIC, is an infection prevention epidemiologist and biodefense researcher whose work primarily focuses on the role of infection prevention in global health security and biodefense efforts. She holds a PhD in Biodefense from George Mason University, a Master’s in Public Health in Epidemiology, a Masters of Arts in International Security Studies, and a Bachelor’s Degree in Classical History, with a specialization on disease in ancient Rome, from the University of Arizona. She is a certified infection preventionist and fellow of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security Emerging Leaders in Biosecurity Initiative. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org