For several weeks in September and October 1984, residents in the town of The Dalles, Ore., went about their business: they went to work, attended school, cleaned up their backyards, and followed the upcoming county elections. When it was time for dinner, many of them went to one of nearly a dozen local restaurants or purchased food from an in-town supermarket.
Shortly after eating, however, hundreds of these residents began to suffer from abdominal cramps, diarrhea, and vomiting. The cause—Salmonella typhimurium, a bacterium that had been sprinkled onto fruits and vegetables, mixed into bleu cheese dressing and potato salad, and dropped into coffee creamer and glasses of water. The culprit: a religious cult trying to gain control of the county by making people too sick to go to the polls.
If this sounds like the plot of the latest thriller at the multiplex, guess again. This malicious case of food tampering really happened; 751 people sickened by the bacterium and a town that became economically crippled can attest to that. And, as bizarre as it sounds, the non-lethal incident goes on record as America’s first and, thus far, only food-related bioterrorism attack.
Food Supply Vulnerability: Then and Now
Fast forward to the fall of 2006. An E. coli outbreak among more than 200 people leads to a nationwide recall of thousands of bags of fresh spinach. The incident, traced to a grower for Earthbound Farm, based in San Juan Bautista, Calif., costs the Monterey County Farm industry more than $100 million, according to the Western Growers Association.
Unlike the incident in Oregon 21 years earlier, there’s no evidence linking the spinach contamination to a terrorist act, so it cannot be considered bioterrorism, according to Marion Nestle, PhD, MPH, professor of nutrition at New York University in New York, N.Y., and author of Safe Food: Bacteria, Biotechnology, and Bioterrorism (University of California Press, 2004). But this recent incident and others do underscore the need for the food industry to take precautions against potential attacks in America.
“It comes down to safety,” Nestle says. “If our food supply is better prepared against food safety problems, then it will be better prepared against bioterrorism.”
But if it’s been more than two decades since the country’s only confirmed case of bioterrorism, should American companies even worry about it? Absolutely, says Michael Doyle, PhD, director of the University of Georgia’s Center for Food Safety in Griffin, Ga.
As the United States imports more food products from other countries each year, there’s a growing chance that some kind of biological contamination—terrorist-related or not—will hit American soil, according to Doyle. Non-intentional product contamination recalls have recently hit the nation’s seafood, produce, meat, and pet food industries, and intentional contamination efforts could happen almost as easily, he says.
“If somebody [overseas] really wanted to do something serious and damage our food supply, it wouldn’t be too hard,” Doyle says. “It could take many days to weeks before we figure out what was introduced. Depending on how widespread it was, it could take some time to figure out what the source is. There could be a lot of damage in between.”
The Economics of Food Safety
Product recalls and possible lawsuits stemming from injuries or deaths will cost affected companies a fortune, according to attorney Bill Marler of Marler Clark LLP. His Seattle law firm has filed—and won or settled—hundreds of food safety lawsuits in the past 15 years, to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars.
There is also the long-term damage to corporate reputations to consider. “One of the desired effects of terrorism is loss of economic stability,” says Eddie Sorrells, chief operating officer and general counsel for DSI Security Services in Dothan, Ala. When the public hears that a major fast food chain’s burgers are tainted, they are simply going to stay away. “I’m not going to that chain for a while, and I’m not going to let my family go either,” Sorrells says.