In a small town, over two thousand children fell sick with stomach aches, nausea, and bloody diarrhea. Four died of kidney failure; sixteen more were sent to intensive care. An investigation traced the outbreak to butter cream cake frosting contaminated with one of the worst strains of E. coli (cue collective shuddering). The baker in charge of making the dessert, who had a history of drunk driving offenses, was fired and charged with criminal negligence. The families of the children organized a class-action lawsuit.
What the investigators didn’t find out is that the E. coli sample was taken from an area hospital by a night-shift lab worker who had been collecting deadly strains of diseases in slant vials, smuggling them out of the hospital in an ice-filled lunch Thermos, and storing them in his refrigerator. Intent on causing harm to children but not looking to get caught, he took a part-time job at the school’s main cafeteria and slipped the sample into the icing while the baker took a quick break. He quit in the midst of the ensuing legal and media frenzy, and was never questioned by epidemiologists or charged with any wrongdoing. He still works at the hospital, and his freezer is still full of a wide range of deadly pathogens.
Alright so this didn’t actually happen—at least, as far as we know. It’s the opening anecdote of a chapter in Dr. Michael T. Osterholm’s book, Living Terrors: What America Needs to Know to Survive the Coming Bioterrorist Catastrophe, which will give us all nightmares for the all-too-real scenario mentioned above. Published in September of 2000 (a year before America’s outlook on terrorism changed forever) the book is a just-detailed-enough survey of all the ways infectious diseases could be used to harm large numbers of people.
Since September 11th, 2001, the US has been understandably obsessed with preventing another type of terrorist attack. But what we may have failed to realize is that while the government is shelling out $16 billion a year on anti-terrorism efforts, they’ve allocated a paltry $1 billion to secure our food supply. To put this in some perspective: An estimated 36,000 Americans have died of food-borne pathogens since 2001, compared to 323 deaths as a result of terrorist activities. In 2004, when (then) Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson resigned from his position, he expressed concern that the United States wasn’t doing nearly enough to protect our food.
“I, for the life of me, cannot understand why the terrorists have not attacked our food supply, because it is so easy to do,” he said at the time, calling his agency’s inspections of the US food supply “minute.” You’d think that the head of HHS proclaiming the ease with which terrorists could seriously mess with our massively complex food chain would set off some alarm bells, but nothing much changed until recently.
“I, for the life of me, cannot understand why the terrorists have not attacked our food supply, because it is so easy to do.”
It’s taken the United States government 13 years to acknowledge that our food supply might be more vulnerable than we’d like to admit. We wouldn’t want a nation of overeaters losing their appetites. But on December 24, 2013, for the first time in US history, the FDA proposed an additional rule be added to the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). It’s called “Focused Mitigation Strategies to Protect Food Against Intentional Adulteration,” which basically admits that our food system is full of vulnerabilities, and would require both domestic and foreign food facilities to have a plan in place to address these significant threats. In human speak, the FDA has finally started paying attention to the cracks in our food system where terrorists might slip in and seriously fuck stuff up for a lot of innocent people.
“I can’t remember a time in my life where an attack on our food system wasn’t on my mind,” Dr. Michael T. Osterholm, the author of Living Terrors and America’s foremost expert on infectious diseases, told me. Dr. Osterholm currently serves as the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP) and teaches at the University of Minnesota’s Medical School and its School of Public Health. Osterholm also served as Minnesota’s leading epidemiologist, a.k.a. the person who traces every single disease outbreak in the state and finds out what caused it. To put it simply, Dr. Osterholm has spent his career being one of the most important people standing in between you and death by dinner. Or breakfast. But he unfortunately doesn’t hold the food system in very high regard, at least from a safety perspective.
“The food system is like any of the other primary infrastructure systems in our world: They’re all horrible,” Osterholm says. “Telecom…transportation…entertainment venues…all of them. It’s hard for me to say if food is more or less vulnerable.”
Predicting terror attacks is not the kind of business I’d like to be in, but part of the thought process in the field is determining every possible scenario where something can go wrong, and then mapping out the likelihood that each one will. According to the FDA, there are four main points in the food production chain where things could go very, very wrong if someone wanted them to: The receiving and loading of bulk liquids, liquid storage and handling, secondary ingredient handling (when ingredients other than the main one are manipulated before being combined with the main one), and really any kind of mixing or blending in general. If you close your eyes and picture your average grocery store, you’ll realize very quickly that most of the food in there is actually processed—mixed, blended, or made in bulk. Based on these FDA criteria, someone could easily be messing with your Cheerios or apple juice at one of several points in the ever-complicated mess that is our food supply chain. And you would have no way of knowing it until you took a bite.
“The fact is that food is now produced on a global scale, with multiple ingredients and steps happening in multiple places…it becomes very hard to trace [diseases] back to their source,” says Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious diseases instructor in the University of Pittsburgh’s Department of Medicine and the associate editor of another fun read, a journal titled Biosecurity and Bioterrorism. “That’s what you see with these big outbreaks like E. coli and salmonella, more so than in an earlier era when everyone was getting something from one place. Quality control was easier to enforce at the corporate level back then.”
The needle-in-a-haystack nature of foodborne outbreaks—the United States sees hundreds of thousands of cases every year which result in thousands of deaths, often from foods prepared, shipped, and consumed in several states—make nailing down an intentional actor impossible.
In 1984, members of a religious commune known as the Rajneeshee poisoned salad bars in Oregon with salmonella bacteria. They were practicing ways to incapacitate voters ahead of an election; they wanted their candidate to win. A total of 751 people became ill from eating the tossed salads. It took a year for officials to figure out that the outbreak had been intentional, when the Rajeeshee were being investigated under other criminal charges. Seriously freaky shit. There have been other incidents, too. Like the Peanut Corporation of America’s shutdown in 2009, after evidence surfaced that the company had knowingly released a contaminated product that caused a massive outbreak of salmonella. Or the 2011 E. coli outbreak in France and Germany that was traced back to Egyptian Fenugreek seeds—4,000 people were sickened and 49 died. Or even the most recent horse meat IKEA scandal that paralyzed Europe, which, while it did not harm anyone, served to remind us that we never know what’s lurking just around the corner of that innocent-looking package of meatballs.
The key in all these examples, however, is that they could just as easily have been accidents. For the people in charge of identifying, tracing, and stopping food-related illnesses, finding a perpetrator is often impossible, and definitely low on their list of priorities. The head of the National Center for Food Protection and Defense, Dr. Amy Kircher, is the first to admit it.
“When we have an outbreak, we need to respond to treat people or animals and act to save economies,” Dr. Kircher says. “The hard part is getting back to trying to find intent. The only way we would know if [an outbreak] was a deliberate terrorist attack is if something is announced, or the attack is something that clearly doesn’t happen naturally. That attribution—that ‘finding the bad guy’—that’s tough. Often, we won’t know.”
The needle-in-a-haystack nature of foodborne outbreaks—the United States sees hundreds of thousands of cases every year which result in thousands of deaths, often from foods prepared, shipped, and consumed in several states—make nailing down an intentional actor impossible. There’s also the worry that too much fear-mongering is a bad thing. “Our society is aware that food problems happen,” says Dr. Kircher. “How do you tease out what is intentional? What is safety? Where do they overlap?”
Thankfully, the US is taking a big, expensive step to attempt to answer that question: The Department of Homeland Security has finally pushed through a plan to build a National Bio and Agro-Defense facility in Manhattan, Kansas. Construction of the laboratory, which will run tests on bacteria and other threats that could potentially devastate US foodways, began this year, and the central facility building started in February. But with a focus on research, and a completion date years away, it remains to be seen whether the center will be able to work quickly enough to prevent the next outbreak.
Enjoy your bowl of cereal.