Should We Be Worried About Food Terrorism?

Elections are where the most nefarious folks get to show how terrible they can be. In Chicago, it's long been the lore that elections in the '20s and '30s were won by whoever could rouse enough drunks at the local watering holes on Election Day. In Wisconsin, flyers were sent out in 2004 telling voters that if anyone in their family has been arrested, they can't vote. But in the fall of 1983, a cult in Oregon tried to win an election in the most extreme way possible: By trying to poison the competition.

The group was led by an Indian mystic known as Rajneesh, and the goal was to make enough voters of the awkwardly-named city of The Dalles incapacitated during the election in order to allow members of the cult to win seats on the county's Circuit Court. (The second part of the plan was to import homeless people and stuff the ballot box.) They attempted this by going to restaurants and pouring a "salsa" of salmonella on the salad bar. In all, 751 people were hospitalized. (No one died.) They still lost the election.

This incident was the last time America was under attack by food terrorists. And the FDA is taking steps to make sure it continues to be.

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Last year, the FDA proposed a series of new rules that would force food manufacturers and processors to take steps to keep food terrorism from happening. They're a part of the new Food Safety Modernization Act, a bill signed into law back in 2011 that gave the FDA more teeth when combating issues like wide-spread food contamination. The focus thus far has been trying to combat threats to our food security from the inside by looking at incompetence and unsafe handling. Now, they're focusing on combating threats from purposeful attacks.

But before the FDA proposes rules, first they need to get a state of the general safety of the industry. So, the proposal put forth by the agency aren't "rules" per say, so much as a directive for large-scale food processing facilities to "identify and implement focused mitigation strategies" to keep the access to their products contained. For example, declaring what level of security people need to have in order to access to the large vats of milk on a dairy farm, how many padlocks are kept on fences, what defensive measures are in place on cow feed. That kind of thing. From there, the FDA will use the information to determine how to fix the weak links of our food supply.

And weak they are. The set of food terrorism possibilities the FDA lays out reads like the most terrifying season of "24" ever:

[F]luid milk is widely consumed across different sub-populations, including infants and children, increasing the potential for significant adverse public health impacts and, because of public reaction to child and infant morbidity and mortality, decreasing public confidence in the food supply.

Okay, admittedly it's a little more dry than "24." But it still doesn't paint the prettiest of pictures.

Seeing as the country hasn't had a full-blown food attack since the Oregon cultists in 1983, is food terrorism even a real worry? Documents uncovered in 2002 from an al-Qaeda bunker suggest they at least had an inkling to attack the country's food supply at some point. And from a terrorist's perspective it makes sense to consider agroterrorism, seeing as it could inflict a massive amount of damage while only costing whatever it takes to obtain a great big bag of poison and procure access to the poorly-protected food supply.

In fact, the threat is large enough for the FBI to issue this warning:

Agriculture may not represent terrorists' first choice of targets because it lacks the shock factor of more traditional attacks; however, it comprises the largest single sector in the U.S. economy, making agroterrorism a viable primary aspiration.

All of which is to say: It's a good idea we're finally getting around to putting some more padlocks in between terrorists and our food supply.

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About the Author

Rick Paulas has written plenty of things, some of them serious, many of them not, scattered over the vast expanses of the Internet. He lives in Los Angeles and is a White Sox fan.
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