Weaponized Hamburgers? an Attack on the Food Supply Is Hard to Execute but Could Sicken or Kill Thousands. Complacency Makes 'Hard' Not Hard Enough

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Byline: Sharon Begley

To a post-9/11 lexicon of phrases like "threat level" and "homeland security," we need to add another: food defense. The possibility that the nation's food supply could be targeted by terrorists has existed since at least the anthrax letters of October 2001, but recent events have underlined just how real the threat is. Suspects in last month's failed car bombings in London and Glasgow, for

instance, include physicians, a reminder that terrorists can have biomedical know-how. And imports of contaminated food from China--pet food laced with the chemical melamine, toothpaste with the poisonous compound diethyl glycol and seafood with carcinogenic antimicrobials--"show how vulnerable the food supply is to intentional acts of terrorism, too," says Frank Busta, codirector of the National Center for Food Protection and Defense at the University of Minnesota.

In 2001, the then Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson told Congress that food inspections were so porous that the possibility of intentional contamination made him "more fearful ... than anything else." In response, Congress gave the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) more money for inspectors and passed the Bioterrorism Act of 2002 to stop or catch attacks on the food supply. But the 600 additional inspectors for imported food are gone, putting us back down to 2001 numbers, and the 2002 law failed its first real test when it took weeks to identify melamine as the pet-food culprit. "The progress we made after 2001 was short-lived," says Caroline Smith DeWaal of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "The intent of the person adding melamine to the wheat gluten was not as nefarious as that of a terrorist, but the effect could have been just as bad if a more toxic agent had been used [in human food]."

The industry has not been standing idly by. Food producers have implemented systems to identify and secure points of vulnerability, such as storage tanks or transport. Although the steps are voluntary, and there are no reliable records on which companies are doing it right, Allen Matthys of the Grocery Manufacturers Association says that "individual companies have done a lot of work behind the scenes to be sure their products are safe and secure." Clearly, though, not all the holes have been plugged. In 2003, a Michigan supermarket worker contaminated 200 pounds of hamburger with a nicotine-based pesticide, making 92 people sick. The year before, school lunches were accidentally contaminated with ammonia at a warehouse, sending 44 people to hospitals. …