In early 2001, Ali Khan, David Swerdlow, and Dennis Juranek of the National Center for Infectious Diseases warned – in a Public Health Report (Precautions Against Biological and Chemical Terrorism Directed at Food and Water Supplies) – that the deliberate contamination of food and water is among the easiest of ways to distribute biological or chemical agents. Improving food and water safety technologies, combined with better disease surveillance and response techniques, may prevent or minimize the consequences of a food-borne terrorism event.
That conclusion, as applicable today as it was in 2001 (and probably more so), was underscored last month (on March 14) when President Obama declared the nation’s food-safety system a “hazard to public health.” For that reason, Obama said, he plans to create an advisory group to review and update the nation’s archaic food-safety laws, improve information-sharing among the many government agencies responsible for food safety, and bolster the food-safety role of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) through an infusion of funding and staff resources.
An Urgent Need to Prevent “Catastrophic” Consequences
Such funding is urgently needed. The nation’s food-supply chain includes numerous vulnerable and unprotected points where security can be compromised by the intentional introduction of tainted material such as a biologic agent. Botulism is one example. Former Secretary of the Navy Richard Danzig suggested several years ago, in fact – in a paper (Catastrophic Bioterrorism – What Is to Be Done) issued by the Center for Technology and National Security Policy – that three bioterrorism scenarios pose the greatest threat to humans: a smallpox attack, an airborne anthrax attack, and a release of botulinum toxin.
Businesses and industries engaged in food import, manufacturing, farming, processing, packaging, transport, receipt, and storage, wholesalers, retail grocery sales, farmer’s markets, and food preparation are all vulnerable, as is the end consumer. Recent breakdowns in food safety include the contaminated spinach event of 2006, last year’s salmonella outbreak in imported peppers, and the recent peanut contamination event that has caused illness in more than 600 people and may have contributed to the deaths of several consumers. In his 14 March radio address, President Obama described these and other events as a “painful reminder of how tragic the consequences can be when food producers act irresponsibly and the government is unable to do its job.”
It seems likely that such incidents will continue for the foreseeable future. Just last week (30 March) the Setton Pistachio company announced a voluntary recall of specific lots of bulk-roasted shelled pistachios, roasted-in-shell pistachios, and the Setton Farms brand of roasted/salted/shelled pistachios (shipped in 9 oz. film bags). One of its customers had claimed that the company’s Back to Nature Trail Mix was contaminated with salmonella. Yesterday (7 April) the company expanded the voluntary recall to include all of its roasted shell pistachios and in-shell pistachios because of possible salmonella contamination.
A food-borne attack may be more preventable than an airborne or mail-borne attack, if only because there are so many nodes in the supply chain where hazards can be detected. Vulnerability points can be identified and mitigation measures put into place to reduce risk. Technology can also be leveraged to improve food security. For example, the ultrahigh-temperature (UHT) pasteurization of milk, which can inactivate the botulinum toxin, is now an option available to provide extended shelf life. However, according to a 2005 article (Analyzing a Bioterror Attack on the Food Supply: The Case of Botulinum Toxin in Milk, written by Stanford University researchers Lawrence Wein and Yifan Liu for the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences), UHT milk has not been embraced by consumers because the process has a noticeable effect on taste.
Molecular Typing and New Testing Technologies
However, rapid in-process testing technology is available to detect the presence of dangerous biologic agents in food products. In addition, Arizona State University intends to use DHS funding to determine the most efficient ways: (1) to ensure that produce entering the United States from Mexico is safe; and (2) to strengthen the security of the supply chain from naturally occurring diseases, food tainting, and acts of terrorism. One probable fallout benefit of this effort will be the development of technology that will help trace the origin of a threat. Placing temperature sensors in shipment containers and monitoring temperature fluctuations is another strategy available to help determine the need for an en-route inspection.
Numerous combinations of toxic agents and dissemination scenarios make detection and prevention difficult. Khan and his colleagues suggested in their 2001 article that new technology such as molecular typing can be used to improve quality-control at locations where products are processed. The rapid detection, condemnation, and destruction of contaminated food before its transport and eventual consumption will help significantly in the prevention and spread of such contamination and the adverse health consequences that follow. Similarly, surveillance through the real-time monitoring of illnesses, as reported by properly trained health providers, can alert the nation’s healthcare and emergency-management communities to unfolding events. The networking of surveillance system outputs to detect outbreaks and initiate a response is increasingly important because failures in quality control and/or the intentional contamination of food “downstream” of the point of origin have occurred in the past and are likely to continue.
More Imports vs. “Scant Monitoring”
Improved monitoring, alerting, and notification capabilities, according to a January 2009 Global Security Newswire article (Drug Safety Watchdog Sees Al-Qaeda Risk to U.S. Food, Drug Imports), by Elaine Grossman is increasingly necessary because, in her words, the “scant monitoring of expanding U.S. food and medicine imports could heighten the risk of biological attack by al-Qaeda or other terrorist groups.”
Recent incidents of contaminated foreign foods and medicines generally reflect a business decision to reduce production costs in poorly regulated nations rather than an intention to harm consumers. However, according to Steven Nissen – a Cleveland Clinic cardiologist mentioned as a candidate for a senior post in the Obama administration – that problem has been compounded because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration apparently has exerted insufficient control over the quality and content of imported food and drugs.
A terrorist group could exploit this vulnerable gap in control processes because the United States has become so dependent on foreign nations for its foodstuffs. Today, as Grossman also points out, “eighty percent of seafood and nearly half of the fresh fruits consumed in this country come from abroad. Much of it clears customs based on electronic data provided by the importer without any U.S. sampling or testing.” Making improvements in technology that can help secure the safety and security of the food supply chain is critical to the nation’s public health and economy.
For Additional Information:
On Secretary Danzig’s paper discussing bioterrorism preparedness, http://biotech.law.lsu.edu/blaw/general/danzig01.pdf
On Elaine Grossman’s article about risks to U.S. food and drug imports, http://www.globalsecuritynewswire.org/gsn/nw_20090129_3617.php
On Ali Khan, David Swerdlow & Dennis Juranek’s article titled Precautions Against Biological and Chemical Terrorism Directed at Food and Water Supplies, http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?artid=1497290
On Lawrence Wein and Yifan Liu’s article titled Analyzing a Bioterror Attack on the Food Supply: The Case of Botulinum Toxin in Milk, http://www.pnas.org/content/102/28/9984.full.pdf+html
On the “Pistachio Recall,” reported in a 7 April Reuters report (Setton Pistachio Expands Pistachio Recall) by Grant McCool, http://news.yahoo.com/s/nm/20090407/hl_nm/us_pistachios_recall_2
Steven A. Harrison is the assistant director – emergency operations, logistics, and planning – for the Commonwealth of Virginia’s Department of Health. His principal duties involve: (a) various tasks related to and/or requiring a working knowledge of both Chempack and the Strategic National Stockpile; and (b) execution of Virginia’s own Hurricane Preparedness and Exercise Program. He also collaborates with other policy makers and decision making officials on the Cities Readiness Initiative and State Managed Shelter planning. Harrison, a graduate of the College of William and Mary, also holds a Master Exercise Practitioner certification and is pursuing a Master’s Degree in Homeland Security.