Attacking the U.S. Food Supply

This is a partial transcript of "Special Report With Brit Hume," Dec. 8, 2004, that has been edited for clarity.

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TOMMY THOMPSON, SECRETARY, HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES: For the life of me, I cannot understand why the terrorists have not, you know, attacked our food supply. Because it is so easy to do.


BRIT HUME, HOST: Well, that statement certainly got everyone’s attention when the Health and Human Services secretary made it last week. The focus has been on why he would say such a thing. But there of course, there’s also the question of what exactly he meant.

For answers, we turn to Dr. Michael Osterholm, who among other things is the associate director of the Department of Homeland Security National Food Protection of Defense, and a professor as well at the University of Minnesota. He joins us from outside Minneapolis tonight.

Dr. Osterholm, it’s so easy, according to the secretary to attack our food supply. How?

DR. MICHAEL OSTERHOLM, DHS CTR. FOR FOOD PROTECTION: Well, first of all, you have to realize that every year in this country: over 76 million people get sick eating food, 5,000 people died, 25,000 people are hospitalized. So Mother Nature already has identified many different ways, despite all of our best efforts, to attack us in a sense.

But what Secretary Tommy Thompson (search) was talking about is there’s no other system in all of the economy of the United States, I don’t care if you’re talking about: communications, finance, manufacturing, transportation, all of them combined, nothing is more complicated, more complex than the production of food.

Whether it’s the produce, whether it’s the meat, whether it’s the canned goods, processed goods, whether it comes from anywhere else in the world, or right here on our own shore, there are so many pieces and parts to it, that for someone just to take aim at one part of it is something that is easy to do.

HUME: Well, but when you say, "take aim at some part of it" — look, I don’t want you to spell out a blueprint for me here as to how to do it. But how easy would it be to do? I mean I realize that there are a lot of ways — there may be a lot of foods and it’s a complicated thing. That might argue that it would be more difficult.

OSTERHOLM: Well, actually you’re right. I think the point, though, that I illustrated at the beginning is a lot of people get sick already. So there must be gaps in our system right now that allow that to happen, despite our best efforts not to have it happen.

But today, one of the other issues that’s happened with the food supply is it’s not the little mom and pop operation today that supplies food to the local neighbors. Instead what it is, it’s food that produced by the metric tons and shipped around the world overnight. So what a terrorist would have to do is take any number of a biologic agents or chemical agents and introduce them to that bulk ton of foods, whether it’s in the fields or processing plant, whatever. Those are possible ways to attack our food supply in a kind of 9/11 type hit.

Now having said that; let me just back up and say that you still have to be even careful though about what happens in your local restaurant. Recently there was an event in China (search) where a disgruntled restaurant owner went across the street, put some pesticide into the food of his competitor’s restaurant, and ended up killing a number of people from that.

So really anywhere in the system we’ve have so many links that could possibly be attacked, that that’s what Secretary Thompson is really addressing.

HUME: Right. But you mentioned a 9/11 type of attack. You’re talking about killing people by the thousands. I can understand easily how it would be — and you’ve just given a wonderful example from China of how easy it might be to poison some food being served in a particular restaurant on a given night. And that’s a small number of people. How much more difficult is it to poison people by the thousands?

OSTERHOLM: Well, let me give you an example of what Mother Nature does again. Actually, I headed up this outbreak of relative international importance several years ago, when it turned out that an ice cream manufacturer here in the Midwest was shipping bulk ice cream, pasteurized material from one plant to another, and then actually packaging at that second plant.

It turned out that the trucks were not being adequately washed out and on the backhaul, they were actually hauling raw egg. Four hundred thousand people became ill with salmonella infection before anyone was able to detect it. That ice cream was distributed to all 48 states before anybody could detect it.

If that had been something other than a salmonella bacteria, but a much more toxic material or a different biologic agent, that could have resulted in many, many thousands of deaths. So there’s that one example just like that.

HUME: How likely do you think it is that terrorists would turn to this kind of attack? Is this the kind of thing that has their — would appeal to them; the terrorists that we know of?

OSTERHOLM: Well, first of all, Brit, I think one of the things we have to look back at is what’s happened already. And a religious cult in Oregon actually did an attack on a community there a few years ago, in which they actually contaminated salad bars with another bacteria, with the hope that they could keep local residents from going to the polls and voting. That wasn’t even picked up until sometime later, even though people got sick, when the cult actually acknowledged they did it.

Today, there are probably ample opportunities for the Ted Kaczynskis of the biologic world, or the cult groups to perpetrate events every day. There are likely possibilities some of the animal rights groups, who have already made threats to go after production animals as a way of somehow intercepting or interrupting that system. All the way up to the Al Qaeda (search), who we know has actually looked at the whole issue of food supply.

So part of the problem today is let’s not just focus on any one terrorist. There are any number of individuals who might very well want to go after the food supply for economic reasons, as well as just to go after humans.

HUME: So are there a range of steps that could make our food supply much safer that your department, Homeland Security and others, are simply not taking or that Congress hasn’t hack acted on? What do we need to do here, quickly?

OSTERHOLM: No. In fact, that’s just the opposite. And one of the things that wasn’t added in to the comment by the secretary was the fact that, for example, at the Food and Drug Administration (search), they have now gone from roughly $8 million. More than $150 million in support for trying to better protect the food supply.

But also at the private sector, which is where this is at. This is a $1 trillion a year economy in our country has taken a number of steps. But as I just pointed out, if Mother Nature can continue to perpetrate that kind of impact on us with the food supply, you can understand why there are still gaps there.

HUME: Thank you.

OSTERHOLM: But when you add it all up in the end.

HUME: Thank you.

OSTERHOLM: I just want to say we still have a safe food supply.

HUME: All right. I’m glad to hear that, Doctor. Thank you very much for taking the time.

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