Bioterrorism: Using Foods and Beverages As Deadly Weapons
By Dr. William Oliver Hedgepeth
Faculty Member, Transportation and Logistics Management, American Military University
“The food industry should start thinking seriously about various terrorism-related scenarios that could potentially involve radioactive materials and make preparations for dealing with these situations should they become reality,” Robert A. Norton, Ph.D., urges in Food Safety Magazine.
“The most immediate element of concern for a food facility — maybe a large production plant or sprawling warehouse — would actually be from the direct blast effects emanating from an improvised explosive device (IED) rather than from any radioactive material that might be present,” Norton added.
He was particularly concerned about possible radioactive elements being inserted into foods and beverages to cause illnesses or death. But the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has provided the food industry very rigid safeguards against poisonous chemicals entering our food. The USDA has a detailed list of Food Safety Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) on food handling, cleaning, cooking and personal hygiene.
According to the Department of Homeland Security, there are “an estimated 2.1 million farms, 935,000 restaurants, and more than 200,000 registered food manufacturing, processing, and storage facilities. This sector accounts for roughly one-fifth of the nation’s economic activity.”
Bioterrorism and Food Safety Research to Protect People
The Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health is a national leader in bioterrorism and food safety research. Scientists there are studying how harmful elements can enter the complex, often invisible food and beverage supply chain that extends from raw materials to a final product on the dinner table.
There are two categories currently under research:
- Terrorist targeting of livestock and crops during production, harvesting and storage (agroterrorism)
- Terrorist targeting of processed foods during processing, manufacturing, storage, transport, distribution or service
Agroterrorism is an economic weapon that could target the estimated $150 billion livestock industry. That would include cattle, sheep, pigs and chickens, as well as produce such as grains, fruits and vegetables.
An attack on the U.S. food industry would cause great harm to the nation’s economy and destroy the livelihoods of thousands of farmers and grocers. Furthermore, it would affect restaurants, warehouses and distribution centers, online companies, and the transportation systems of truck, rail, air and sea. And that does not include the cost of affected logistics, supply chains and transportation systems.
Public Laws to Protect the US from Bioterrorism
Congress enacted the Public Health Security And Bioterrorism Preparedness And Response Act of 2002 to prevent agricultural bioterrorism. Its focus is to put in place federal and state assistance and organizations to ensure that what we regularly eat and drink is safe. This law outlines the legal reporting provisions to keep us safe from bad actors’ malevolent intentions or from accidents in any part of the supply chain.
The US. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is the regulatory arm of the Department of Health and Human Services (DHS). It protects the public from deliberate attacks against our food and beverage supply as well as accidents that can lead to foodborne illnesses, such as the recall of E.coli-contaminated romaine lettuce in 2018.
University War Game Exercise Provides Training on How to Cope with Bioterrorism Attack
The University of Washington is one of the creators of a tabletop war game exercise involving a mock bioterrorist attack on food and an infectious disease. According to the UW website, this scenario involves “four fictional countries varying in population size and resources and their respective health departments and local emergency responders.”
In responding to 22 separate incidents as the outbreak unfolds, participants discuss policy issues, such as:
- Who is responsible?
- What information is needed?
- When is public information given out?
The game’s intended audience is “anyone who would be responding to a public health emergency.” According to UW, that includes people such as:
- Hospital administrators and clinicians
- Public health administrators
- Laboratory directors
- Environmental health staff
- School district administrators
- First responders such as emergency medical services, fire safety, law enforcement and emergency medical technicians
2005 Workshop Identified Foodborne Threats to Public Health
In 2005, the Institute of Medicine’s Forum on Microbial Threats hosted a public workshop in Washington, D.C., to examine issues critical to the U.S. food supply. The workshop resulted in the production of a 2006 report, Addressing Foodborne Threats to Health, which described how to protect the U.S. food supply. The report documents the range of chemicals — from natural and man-made contamination sources — that could poison the U.S. food and beverage supply.
The workshop also identified more than 250 foodborne diseases from information provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The workshop also focused on ways to prevent accidental poisoning as well as deliberate threats. The workshop was partially the result of the U.S. government taking a serious stand on food and beverage safety with more than 15 federal agencies practicing oversight of our distribution systems.
Universities are Leading the Way in Food and Beverage Safety
Besides the U.S. government, state and local agencies, many U.S. universities are focusing on education, research and reporting on ways to improve U.S. food safety. For instance, Purdue University is one of many universities conducting research on chemicals that contain harmful microorganisms that could enter vegetables and other plants. Similarly, Regent University of California researchers are examining cantaloupes for harmful pathogens from washing and storage methods.
Food safety is a worldwide concern. In the Netherlands, Wageningen University has announced that it will open a new research facility for food safety in 2019.
Today’s college students, as well as industry and government agencies, are well positioned to address the subject of bioterrorism thanks to education, training and awareness. In the future, terrorists seeking to contaminate U.S. foods and beverages will have a more difficult chance of success thanks to greater bioterrorism awareness.
About the Author
Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth is a full-time professor at American Military University (AMU). He was program director of three academic programs: Reverse Logistics Management, Transportation and Logistics Management and Government Contracting. He was Chair of the Logistics Department at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Dr. Hedgepeth was the founding Director of the Army’s Artificial Intelligence Center for Logistics.