An act of bioterrorism on the manufacturing end of the American food supply would probably be handled a lot like the Food and Drug Administration is handling the peanut industry right now: A slowly growing list of retroactive recalls, FDA officials urging manufacturers to reexamine their products, and confused customers suspiciously eying that PB&J amidst calls for tighter regulations.
In the past decade, chicken, spinach, beef, peppers, lettuce, hot dogs, breakfast cereal, lunch meat and, of course, peanuts have all been recalled due to contamination and the FDA has been widely criticized for it's handling of investigations, its lack of authority to issue wide recalls, and its poor communication with the public.
In his weekly radio address on March 14th, President Obama addressed the growing concern over the nation's food supply and the FDA's accountability. "The FDA has been underfunded and understaffed in recent years, leaving the agency with the resources to inspect just 7,000 of our 150,000 food processing plants and warehouses each year. That means roughly 95% of them go uninspected."
Since September, 683 people have fallen ill and nine have died after eating products made with tainted peanuts, yet, the FDA's recall list is a work-in-progress.
"I certainly wish we had that information right now so that we could put a comprehensive list out there." Says Director of the FDA Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, Stephen Sundlof. "At this time there's just no direct way of obtaining all that information."
In the case of a bioterrorism attack, these are is not what the American consumer would want to hear about the agency in charge of monitoring 80% of the nation's food supply.
A terrorist attack on a major facility or processing plant could, as demonstrated by a 2005 Stanford study, cause widespread illness and multiple deaths. The study posits that a terrorist armed with a few grams of botulin could effectively contaminate upwards of 100,000 gallons of milk in one shot, sickening or killing hundreds of thousands of people across the country.
Stanford Professor Lawrence M. Wein, one of the researchers behind the milk contamination scenario is one of the many researchers calling for tighter regulations in order to guard against bioterrorism. In the case of dairy, he says, "We need strict laws (…) to ensure that our milk supply is vigilantly guarded from cow to consumer."
In his New York Times Op-Ed column, Wein writes that a system that relies on many suppliers and only a few distributors makes it exceedingly difficult to trace a contaminant. A vial of botulin (the toxin causing botulism) poured into one pasteurization plant-bound milk truck isn't going to have isolated affects. "Let's face it," says Wein, "in the hands of a terrorist, a dairy is just as dangerous as a chemical factory or nuclear plant, and voluntary guidelines are not commensurate with the severity of the threat."
And it isn't only milk that is vulnerable. The Council on Foreign Relations warns that an attack could occur, "at any point between the farm and the table," including restaurants, manufacturing facilities, during transport, or even before produce and livestock have left the farm or feedlot.
One of the major concerns voiced by FDA critics is that the administration cannot issue mandatory recalls. Product recalls are voluntarily issued by manufacturers, which explains the steady waterfall of peanut recalls in the past few months coupled with a very broad FDA advisory.
"The nation lacks a real plan for food protection," says Jeff Levi, PhD, Executive Director of Trust for America's Health.
According to Levi, a major overhaul and major investments are needed in order to modernize a food safety system whose current vulnerabilities start long before a meal reaches the table. "America's food safety system has not been seriously upgraded in more than 100 years, and too many Americans get sick each year from preventable foodborne illnesses."
On March 14th, President Obama announced several key changes aimed at renovating and directing more finances toward the FDA. Obama announced that that Margaret Hamburg, an expert in public health and medicine who has worked on issues of bioterrorism, global health systems, and public health, would fill the position of FDA Administrator. The FDA will receive greater funding to modernize and upgrade food safety labs and more FDA inspectors will be hired. The creation of a Food Safety Working Group that will focus on enforcement, food law upgrades, and intergovernmental coordination was also announced. These changes in the FDA will hopefully make food bioterrorism a more remote possibility while increasing the safety and security of our food supply.