Since Sept. 11, bioterrorism became the federal government's number one priority. The subject includes food security -- protecting the nation's food supply from a bioterrorism attack.
"I don't think a year ago we were very concerned about possibilities of food terrorism," Dr. Charles Sizer, director of the National Center for Food Safety and Technology in Chicago, Ill. told United Press International. "This is going to be a long-term, evolving, type of issue. It's a new reality that we have live to with."
Not since 1984 when cult followers of an Indian guru used salmonella as a weapon to spike salad bars at 10 restaurants in an Oregon town have Americans even been worried about deliberate food contamination with bacteria. The Oregon case sickened 750 people.
Eighteen years later, advanced technology and a decentralized food supply make it possible for terrorists to contaminate the U.S. food supply and sicken or even kill thousands of citizens.
For example, could a cow be intentionally contaminated with bovine spongiform encephalopathy or mad cow's disease and slipped into the nation's meat supply? On April 22, Food and Drug Administration Deputy Commissioner Lester M. Crawford told the Consumer Federation of America, "That is a threat we're watching very closely."
Or could fresh produce be laced with harmful microbes? Although FDA declined to provide possible scenarios its preparing for -- a spokesperson told UPI, "It is FDA's policy not to discuss potential threats" -- experts say no one knows what could happen so it is best to be prepared for anything.
"I don't think we know the worst possible case," said Helen Jensen, a member of the National Research Committee, part of the National Academy of Sciences that helped review food security protocol and an economics professor at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa. "Based on our experience in the last six months, we're seeing things we never expected to see"
To respond to this potential threat, FDA is expected to use $98 million of its $1.727 billion proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2003 specifically for food security.
Meanwhile, FDA has wasted no time. Since January 10, it already has hired 250 food safety inspectors whose jobs it will be to monitor the food distribution process, including checking every single step in food's progress from the farm to someone's dinner plate.
"FDA has been authorized to hire approximately 650 new field personnel" for inspections, Robert E. Brackett, food safety director of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, told UPI. "Although the recent security concerns have accelerated hiring plans, it has been recognized for years that FDA's food inspection capacity needs to be enhanced as part of its normal food safety effort."
These inspectors will be responsible for going through food safety checklists, for both imported and domestic products, to ensure food never gets into the wrong hands or deviates from its scheduled distribution. Random screenings for food pathogens also will be conducted, explained Rhona Applebaum, executive vice president for scientific and regulatory affairs for the National Food Processors Association, an organization working closely with FDA on food security.
Most Americans do not know where their food comes from because the source of the nation's food supply is so varied and vast. "It's no longer like you know the butcher that's in your local community," Jensen said. This makes coordinating food terrorism prevention an effort starting at the federal level and trickling all the way down to the small farmer or restaurant chain.
Applebaum said her office contacted FDA Sept. 12 about coordinating a food security protection plan. The Washington, D.C.-based NFPA met with not only FDA, but also the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to design guidelines for those involved in the American food chain, including restaurants and food suppliers and distributors big and small. All comprise the Security for Food Alliance, formally created two weeks after the terrorist attacks.
Although some food companies have boosted their surveillance technology to better monitor the facility and employees, the guidelines involve "very low technology," Sizer said.
"Light it, lock it and limit access to it," Applebaum said. Meaning: light the property to reduce the chance of break-ins, lock up the food products, and know the personnel working at the food facility and limit the people with access to the product.
"What you want to make sure you do whether it's a restaurant or a processing plant is that you want to make sure you have some information on the people working for you," Applebaum explained. This can be a challenge, particularly in low-paying restaurants or plants where employee turnover can be high. But Applebaum said if security checklists are fully followed, the guidelines work.
"The more hurdles we put between a person focused on doing evil and the consumer, the less likely it would be for a major (terrorism) event," Applebaum said.
The guidelines may seem simple, but they were design to allow smaller companies with smaller budgets to be able to participate in national food security efforts.
How would federal officials be able to discern a foodborne illness outbreak from a terrorist attack?
"FDA relies upon its sister agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and similar state agencies for surveillance and outbreak detection," Hackett said. "Epidemiologists in these agencies are trained to analyze disease patterns and would be the first to detect the source and cause of an outbreak."
Experts concede it might not be possible to know the difference between the two scenarios immediately, but that doesn't affect the initial response, which is to remove contaminated food from the food supply immediately and isolate those who have been sickened, especially if the pathogen is contagious. The fact that responding to a food bioterrorism attack would be similar to responding to a foodborne illness outbreak works in public health officials' favor.
"We have decades of experiences and literally daily experience in dealing with this," said Dr. Jeremy Sobel, a medical epidemiologist with CDC in Atlanta.
When it comes to food bioterrorism, communication is key. CDC already has in place a technologically sophisticated surveillance system allowing real-time electronic correspondence connecting CDC headquarters, state health departments and other local health departments so any foodborne illness or attack can be quickly identified, tracked, quarantined and followed throughout the country.
"In the case of bioterrorism," Sobel explained, this electronic network is crucial in "identifying the perpetrator and getting him off the market too."
CDC also has a genetic fingerprinting system at all state health departments based on collections of previous foodborne pathogens taken from patient and food samples. Having this database of food microbes on hand helps epidemiologists quickly identify any genetic differences in food contaminants.
This could help scientists distinguish an attack from an outbreak and rapidly detect if contaminants have a common source should simultaneous multiple attacks or outbreaks occur throughout the U.S.
Experts said they cannot even forecast the likelihood of a bioterrorism attack in food. They just know that after Sept. 11, the country needs to be on guard all the time.
"We know it's a possibility," Applebaum said. "We don't know what the probability is."