BIOTERRORISM RISK TO FOOD: CAUSE FOR CONCERN BUT NOT PANIC
AUBURN, Ala. - The World Health Organization's
recent warning about potential bioterrorist threats to the food
supply is cause for concern but not panic, says one expert.
In a 45-page special report, the WHO, the United Nation's health
agency, warned that terrorist groups may ultimately target national
food supplies and has advised national governments around the world
to take adequate precautions.
It sounds scary enough. But how serious is the threat?
It is a threat, says Dr. Jean Weese, an Alabama Cooperative Extension
System food scientist and Auburn University associate professor of
food science. But considering the size and complexity of the American
food-processing system, she believes the chances of a knockout blow
to the nation's food supply following a bioterrorist attack are probably
One thing working in Americans' favor not only is the size of its food system but the rigorous safeguards that already have been put
in place along the distribution chains - many of which were around
long before the 9/11 attacks.
If you want to affect masses of people -- which is what the
terrorists typically want to do -- you would probably have to get
into several food-processing plants," Weese says. "Yes, it could
be done, but pulling it off would be a real feat."
"Just consider the plants that supply meat to McDonald's," Weese
says. "You don't just have one processing plant, but many -- one
for the West, the Midwest, the Southeast and so on. So even if you manage to contaminate one, you'll never succeed in
getting them all."
Aside from that, Weese says, virtually all of these plants operate like sealed fortresses, cordoned off by fences and monitored by security guards who carefully screen who comes and goes.
"When you visit a processing plant, you typically have to tell the guard who you are, where you're from, and what purpose you have in there," Weese says. "And even then, to get into the processing area, you typically have to put on special clothing."
So, it is possible for a bioterrorist act to occur in one of these facilities, but it's not a simple matter of walking right in and dropping the contaminant in the food, she said.
Since the 9/11 tragedy, many processing plants are enforcing
even stricter rules -- a fact Weese has encountered firsthand in the
course of organizing plant tours for her food science students.
"Some plants are now so strict that they won't even allow most visitors
into the facility," she says. "It's partly because of the chance one
of them could get hurt but also because of concerns that contamination
Some plants are even requiring visitors to give their names,
personal addresses and, in some cases, their social security
numbers so they can be more easily tracked down in the event a
problem occurs, she said.
Aside from the internal plant procedures, processors also maintain
strict rules for food products coming out of the plant.
"Seals generally are placed on the trucks carrying products out of the
plant and are not broken until the driver reaches his destination,"
Weese says. "And if these seals are broken for whatever reason, the
company to which the products are being shipped typically won't accept
Major food processors, almost without exception, also subject their
foods to onerous safety standards, Weese says. In Alabama, for
example, a peanut processor that supplies national companies such as
Baskin-Robbins and Keebler tests every batch of processed peanuts to
ensure that residual levels of microorganisms do not exceed a certain
level. Products that exceed this level are discarded.
The type of food products most vulnerable to bioterrorism remains
unprocessed foods, such as raw fruits and vegetables. But even these
products most often are subjected to random testing along the food
"If they've been shipped in from overseas, they'll typically undergo
random testing at the port into which they've been shipped," Weese
says. "And since the vast majority of these products will end up in
retail outlets, you can almost rest assured that these retail companies
have a system in place for random testing as well."