WASHINGTON – Concerned that the nation's food supply could be the next target of terrorists, Congress is considering increasing inspections and giving federal agencies more power to pull tainted food from store shelves.
Food has been used as a weapon once before. In the 1980s, a cult poisoned salad bars in Oregon with salmonella bacteria, sickening 750 people.
Experts say potential terrorist targets now include fruits and vegetables that people eat raw and are subject to little inspection, and cattle that could be infected with the fast-spreading foot-and-mouth disease that is harmless to humans but devastating economically.
``There are clear gaps in food regulation that would certainly give the opportunity for intentionally contaminated food to be shipped widely around the U.S.,'' said Caroline Smith DeWaal of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, an advocacy group. ``Food moves quickly and is consumed quickly so in a short amount of time it can cause a significant outbreak.''
Terrorists could poison a limited amount of food and still ``create a general atmosphere of fear and anxiety without actually having to carry out indiscriminate civilian-oriented attacks,'' Peter Chalk of the Rand think tank recently told Congress.
The government's food inspection system is now divided between FDA and the Agriculture Department. FDA, which is responsible for safeguarding nearly all foods besides meat and poultry, has 750 inspectors to check 55,000 food plants. USDA has 10 times as many inspectors for just 6,000 facilities.
FDA wants to hire 410 new food inspectors, lab specialists and other personnel to check fruits, vegetables and other products, primarily imports, and to buy additional equipment to detect pathogens. FDA also wants the power to seize tainted products and inspect manufacturers' records. FDA currently inspects just 1 percent of imports.
The Agriculture Department has put veterinarians on alert and wants more guards to protect its labs around the country that work with food pathogens.
The chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., is proposing a $3.1 billion biosecurity plan that will exceed the Bush administration's request for food safety, aides said.
The White House has asked Congress for $106 million in emergency spending for food and agriculture security.
Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman, meeting with Republican lawmakers Thursday, assured them the food supply is safe.
``We have been looking at where the critical points are and taking all the precautions that we can in dealing with the private sector,'' she said.
Her biggest concern is that terrorists would contaminate a big feedlot with the virus that causes foot-and-mouth disease.This year's outbreak in Britain forced the slaughter of nearly 4 million animals.
The virus is not found in the United States outside of a high-security Agriculture Department lab in New York. A terrorist would have to bring it into the country, possibly in contaminated meat.
There are dozens of labs that work with pathogens, but terrorists wouldn't necessarily need to get their bacteria from them. Salmonella can be found on supermarket chicken and grown in a lab. A strain of E. coli is commonly found in cattle manure.
But it would take a lot of bacteria to contaminate food, and some bugs are dangerous mainly to people who are sick or old, said Susan Sumner, an authority on food safety at Virginia Tech.
``You could pour it on stuff in the supermarket. But if your goal is to disrupt the economy and make a lot of people sick you're not going to do it that way,'' she said.
Shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, produce growers and distributors formed a task force to examine the industry's security. ``The produce industry has a heightened sense of awareness of what's going on,'' said Duke Hipp, a spokesman for the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Growers.
Citing security concerns, he declined to say what additional measures growers were taking.
For consumers, the best defense against such bioterrorism is to cook food properly or, at the very least, to peel or wash it, said Michael Doyle, a food safety expert at the University of Georgia.
``Good food handling practices are to be considered all the time, but more so today,'' he said. ``We as consumers do have a lot of control over the safety of the food we eat.''