WASHINGTON – "Cues from chatter" gathered around the world are raising concerns that terrorists might try to attack the domestic food and drug supply, particularly illegally imported prescription drugs, acting Food and Drug Administration (search) Commissioner Lester M. Crawford says.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Crawford said Wednesday that he had been briefed about Al Qaeda (search) plans uncovered during recent arrests and raids, but declined further comment about any possible threats.
"While we must assume that such a threat exists generally, we have no specific information now about any Al Qaeda threats to our food or drug supply," said Brian Roehrkasse, spokesman for the Homeland Security Department (search).
Crawford said the possibility of such an attack was the most serious of his concerns about the increase in states and municipalities trying to import drugs from Canada to save money.
"We get our cues from chatter that occurs around the world, which is related to us by the intelligence community, and also from past incidents and things that happened domestically," he said.
Crawford noted the 1982 Tylenol case, in which packages of the extra-strength variety of the leading painkiller were removed from store shelves on Chicago's west side, filled with cyanide (search) and returned to stores for purchase. Seven unsuspecting consumers were killed, and the incident prompted widespread adoption of tamperproof packaging.
"I would think that's something they would be looking at," Crawford said of terrorists. "Nothing like that has happened," he added. "But it is a source of continuing concern."
FDA is under mounting pressure — and faces a lawsuit filed by the state of Vermont — to soften its opposition to importing drugs from Canada, which is seen by many consumers and state and local government officials as a way to shave thousands to millions of dollars from drug bills.
The FDA has held fast, saying it is concerned about the safety and effectiveness of the illegally imported drugs. So far, however, the agency has done little more than issue warning letters. And Crawford said the agency has not decided whether to vigorously defend itself against the Vermont lawsuit.
The agency's jitters about Canadian prescription imports are many. According to Crawford, some drugs are shipped without proper refrigeration, some have the wrong potency and some are counterfeit, lacking active ingredients.
Crawford's top concern is that terrorists could strike at drugs.
He said he was briefed about the Al Qaeda threats uncovered by recent arrests and raids. Asked whether the briefing covered potential terror strikes against products the agency regulates — including food and drugs — Crawford declined further comment.
Two recent product tampering episodes the agency faced this summer ended without injury or death.
Baby food, which Crawford said was probably singled out for its "shock" effect, was laced with ground castor beans in Irvine, Calif. The contamination source is unclear; no arrest has been made. Ricin (search), a deadly toxin, is made from castor beans.
And a shipment of lemons from Argentina allegedly impregnated with an unidentified "harmful biological substance" was barred from entry at the Port of Newark, N.J., on Aug. 6. The U.S. Coast Guard, Homeland Security Department and the FDA worked on the investigation, freezing the lemons to preserve the contaminant.
"There was nothing we could find in there," Crawford said.
On other issues, Crawford said:
— A second review links antidepressants with higher suicide rates among children. While outside observers who have read both reports say they contain enough detail for the FDA to recommend Prozac as the first drug of choice for depressed youths, Crawford said the agency will wait until its advisory committee meets in mid-September to give the FDA an expert basis for action.
— The agency approved two new injectable drugs, pentetate calcium trisodium and pentetate zinc trisodium, that speed the body's ability to rid itself of radioactive contamination. The drugs are the first products approved to treat contamination with plutonium, americium or curium, which could be released by a "dirty" bomb.
— Before year's end, the agency will provide regulations that define low-, reduced- or carbohydrate-free items. The FDA is leaning toward educating the public by highlighting healthier foods with a "starburst" tag or color-coded label.