Two hundred German soldiers fall ill during a training exercise. In Kenya, many become sick due to a contamination of corn. A radical group in Oregon poisons the food at a local restaurant, causing several illnesses.
Could a terrorist cause food contamination events such as these and bring widespread sickness to the Tampa Bay area?Not likely, according to University of Buffalo environmental health expert Richard Lee.
“To turn Tampa into an outbreak would be extremely difficult. There are too many food paths,” Lee said. “The best risk would be (areas) with restricted sources and small supply.”
Lee presented a lecture Thursday at the USF College of Public Health, called “Food as a Bioterrorist Weapons.” Lee said during his presentation that food contamination, while not useful in a city such as Tampa, is a useful vehicle to cause harm and panic elsewhere.
“Food as a weapon of mass destruction is not very efficient,” Lee said. “(Food items) are a particularly good weapon for defined targets. If you want to assassinate somebody, poisoning their food or poisoning their drink is a very efficient way of getting rid of them.”Lee said the most effective way food can be used to cause massive death is to cut a region’s food supply and create wide-spread starvation and malnutrition. He said this fact is evident in world events today.
“Malnutrition is a real issue facing (the people) in Afghanistan right now,” he said.
As for the usefulness of food in a terrorist attack on the United States, Lee said there is a possibility that a terrorist group could make an effective statement through contamination.
“You could put (poison) in the Coke or Pepsi. You could poison a lot of people in one place very quickly by doing that,” Lee said. “Food and drink are really useful if you want to kill a person or if you wanted to immobilize or terrorize a group.”
Lee said food contamination could also be used from a military standpoint to neutralize hundreds of troops with widespread sickness or death.
“If you want to interrupt the operations on a U.S. aircraft carrier, you could (use poison), and you could get every pilot in the pilots mess, you could get them all sick at basically about the same time and make that whole ship (unable to operate),” he said. “You could do the same thing in ground zero in New York where the people were being fed in a couple of kitchens.”
Lee said the motivation for a terrorist would be similar to the motivation of the attackers on Sept. 11: to cause the Americans to be uneasy living in the United States.
“(Terrorists) would want to disrupt daily life and want to produce terror, lack of confidence and fear,” he said. “(Terrorists) want to make sure people don’t think the food is safe or that the food system is going to be able to maintain their well being.”
Lee said detecting bioterrorism is also difficult because there are an estimated 76 million cases of naturally occurring sicknesses from foods every year, with roughly 5,000 people dying.
Lee said the best place for a terrorist to cause a large group of people to become ill in a short time would be in food preparation and service.
“It’s really in the kitchen where (a terrorist) would be most effective,” Lee said.
The question remains as to how the public should protect themselves from becoming the victim of food contamination. Lee said the answer is to know who is preparing food.
“If I was going to counsel the public as to the best way to protect themselves is to make sure you have a good cook,” he said. “It’s important to know who’s cooking for us.”
Lee said the public needs to be aware since there are really no vaccinations to protect against food-born illnesses.
“We really don’t have any good public health preventive measures,” he said. “The amount of money (spent) by the FDA and the USDA for food inspection has not been particularly great, and that’s a real issue. Yes, our food supply is vulnerable.”Susan Brown, an infection control practitioner at the University Community Hospital, said she attended the lecture to become more informed on bioterrorism.
“(Lee) had a tendency to put me a little more at ease at the fact that it doesn’t look to be as potent a method of terrorism as we’ve been hearing,” she said. “(Lee) also introduced some new ideas (on how to commit bioterrorism) that I hadn’t thought about, so I hope whoever was sitting in the audience didn’t get those ideas too.”
Brown said she felt that using starvation as a weapon of war would be more effective in a Third World country.
“It looked like it would be used more in another country than in the United States because we have so many avenues and venues that can step in and fix areas like that,” she said. “We need to be out educating internationally as well as locally.”
Nell Christopher, a microbiology manager at St. Joseph’s Hospital, attended the lecture because she’s on a bioterrorism committee. She said she didn’t hear too much from Lee that she hadn’t already known.
“I was just looking to see if there was greater likelihood (of bioterrorism),” Christopher said. “The only message I would take back to my own organization: Are we checking our food handlers very well?”
Christopher said she felt better knowing that water is difficult to contaminate and that such contamination would not lead to widespread disease.
“When the first attacks broke out, most of the people in Tampa really concentrated on the water supply because it’s obvious we didn’t have good security,” she said. “It’s reassuring to hear our public water would be pretty hard to contaminate.”
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