[Paleopsych] NYT: Shared Nightmare Over the Food Supply

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Wed Jan 19 15:38:19 UTC 2005

Washington Memo: Shared Nightmare Over the Food Supply
NYT December 11, 2004

WASHINGTON, Dec. 10 - When Tommy G. Thompson, the departing
secretary of health and human services, used his farewell
news conference last week to warn that terrorists could
easily poison the nation's food supply, he was saying out
loud what he and other experts have been warning since the
attacks of Sept. 11.

Other Washingtonians who spend sleepless nights worrying
about tainted food can expand on Mr. Thompson's nightmare
with the chilling precision of the author Stephen King, and
with the knowledge that terrorists can strike the food
supply without anyone's noticing.

In the three years since the Sept. 11 attacks, millions of
pounds of ground beef suspected of contamination by the E.
coli pathogen were shipped around the country, sold at
countless grocery stores, and sickened several dozen

In another case, millions of pounds of turkey potentially
infected with the deadly listeria bacteria showed up at
several delicatessens, nicely packaged as lunchmeat. Eight
people died from that outbreak.

Produce is not necessarily safe either. Last year, Mexican
scallions tainted with hepatitis A were shipped across the
border, chopped up and served raw in the salsa at a
Chi-Chi's restaurant in Pennsylvania, killing three people.

All three of these examples were accidents, the result of
poor sanitation and poor inspection in this country's
slaughterhouses or at its borders. All three were at
different points in the long, often poorly regulated chain
from field to dinner.

"That's the scary part," said Caroline Smith DeWaal,
director of food safety at the Center for Science in the
Public Interest, a consumer group. "Our systems are so bad
that unless terrorists admit it, we could be poisoned and
not know it was intentional."

The only known instance of food bioterrorism in the United
States occurred in 1984 and went unsolved for a year for
just that reason. Members of a religious cult poisoned a
salad bar in The Dalles, Ore., but did not leave a calling
card or brag about their handiwork. The local authorities
were suspicious, but the outbreak at 10 restaurants was
investigated as a case of poor sanitation until the leader
of the cult came forward and accused some of his members of
the crime.

Twenty years later, Mr. Thompson said at the Dec. 3 news
conference that it was still easy to poison food.

"For the life of me, I cannot understand why the terrorists
have not attacked our food supply because it is so easy to
do," he said.

That remark set off such speculation that President Bush
stepped in and said that his administration was "doing
everything we can to protect the American people." And Mr.
Thompson seemed to backpedal.

"Our nation is now more prepared than ever before to
protect the public against threats to the food supply," Mr.
Thompson said this week, as the administration released new
safety rules requiring food importers, processors and
manufacturers to keep records of the sources of their
products and who receives them.

But these rules represent the bare minimum required to
begin patching together a system to simply identify how
food is moving through this country, say the leading
Congressional critics, who happen to be mostly Democrats.

Representative Rosa DeLauro, a Democrat from Connecticut
who has made food safety one of her causes, said Congress
needed to demand more accountability of food companies and
to spend a lot more money protecting the nation's food.

"Our country must not simply pay lip service to our
bioterror defense," Ms. DeLauro said, "but recognize the
threat facing America's food supply and our increasing food
imports, and fully fund these needs."

As it is, less than 6 percent of the meat and 1 percent of
produce entering the country are inspected at the border.

"Even this low percentage of inspection is mostly visual,
looking at the packaging and labeling, and not inspecting
for contamination with a sophisticated laboratory test,"
said Mary Bottari, of Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch,
a consumer group.

Moreover, critics say, responsibility for the safety of
food is divided between the Food and Drug Administration
and the Agriculture Department, diluting the effectiveness
of the laws on the books.

The United States lags far behind Europe in its ability to
trace the source of food contamination, in part because
Europe strengthened its procedures after suffering through
mad cow disease in the 1990's. In some European countries,
scanning machines at supermarkets not only register the
price of a cut of beef but also flash a picture of the farm
where a cow was raised.

In this country, searching for the source of contaminated
hamburger often takes weeks. One batch of hamburger can
contain meat from hundreds of cows raised in dozens of
states and several countries. And that is why the hamburger
horror is one of the most common nightmare situations.

"You wouldn't even need to infect the cow with E. coli to
spread the disease," said Felicia Nestor, an independent
food safety consultant.

"You could dump E. coli into a gargantuan feedlot where
there are thousands of cattle pressed up against each other
or you could give it to someone at a slaughterhouse where
worker turnover is sometimes 100 percent. The worker could
dump it into a huge grinder and there it goes - the country
is infected."

In other words, food and safety experts agree with Mr.
Thompson's message that the job of ensuring a safe food
supply is far from finished.


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