‘Food Terrorism’: Maybe There’s No There There?

At the announcement of his resignation, HHS Secretary Thompson said, “”For the life of me, I cannot understand why the terrorists have not attacked our food supply because it is so easy to do.” Tommy Boy, I have two explanations for you:

1) Bioterrorism isn’t as easy as everyone makes it out to be [full disclosure: The Mad Biologist is a microbiologist]. Sure, a competent microbiologist could isolate a nasty pathogen, and potentially introduce it into the food supply. This was actually done with Salmonella in Oregon–a cult, attempting to influence a local election, went to the local all-you-can-eat-buffet and doused food with the bacterium. It did make a lot of people sick, but here’s the irony: it wasn’t identified as a terrorist attack until 18 months after the outbreak. Anyway, we’re pretty good at dealing with food poisoning outbreaks

To unleash something really nasty that wouldn’t be confused with food poisoning, a terrorist would have to either steal a sample and then grow it to larger quantities, or else isolate it from nature. Natural isolation isn’t trivial, particularly for someone with limited facilities and training. After the isolation, the organism has to be cultured; this can be tricky. If not cultured right, pathogenic organisms will evolve (yet another reason why evolution matters) to become less virulent as the laboratory environment often selects for mutants that lack pathogenic structures. For example, one of the first things E. coli often does in continuous laboratory culture is lose fimbriae, which are molecular grappling hooks used to colonize the host (potentially you); this happens because it’s costly to produce fimbriae when they’re not needed. Above all, remember the person doing this most likely will not have access to full laboratory facilities; trust me, working with bubonic plague is not something you want to do or that can easily be done in your kitchen (particularly my kitchen).

So now Mr. Terrorist has to introduce this into the food supply (and if he wants a large effect, he won’t go to the local salad bar). Not only do I not know how to do this–and neither do most people (my guess is that it involves breaking and entering into something), most people aren’t competent to do this (the Mad Biologist would love to possess commando superpowers, but, alas, he does not). To sum up, the whole bioterrorism thing just isn’t that easy.

2) There’s been a lot of talk about how maybe we’ve overplayed the whole Al-Queda thing. There are all sorts of relatively simple ways to kill and terrorize people. Shooting people is an old standby. World War I started because of a terrorist incident, and the firepower has only become more lethal. The fact that this has not happened yet may be due to either extreme incompetence or that these rogue cells do not exist.

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