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Editor's Note
Real and unreal

April 4, 2003
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Until September 11, bioterrorism seemed to belong largely to the world of pulp fiction and Arnold Schwarzenegger movies. Sure, there were exceptions every now and then: A hospital lab worker in Texas feeds colleagues pastries laced with Salmonella dysenteriae. An Oregon-based religious cult contaminates restaurant salad bars with Salmonella Typhimurium. But in these and similar cases, the perpetrators fit comfortable profiles. Disgruntled employees. Small ideologically-driven groups without the resources or expertise to cut a significant swath through our food supply.

The possibility of a foreign source posing a significant threat to the food supply seemed pretty remote as well. "The technical barriers for a mass attack are still too great," Roger Breeze, associate administrator of USDA's Agricultural Research Service," observed during a session on bioterrorism last June at the Institute of Food Technologists' annual meeting in New Orleans.

The barriers to a mass attack on the Pentagon and World Trade Center also seemed "too great," but now that they've been breached we face the unfortunate task of revisiting some of the assumptions we've made about public safety in the U.S. Since September, expert after expert has weighed in on the vulnerability of our food supply to contamination, and the picture that is beginning to emerge is comforting in some ways and unsettling in others. Harmful pathogens are easy enough to acquire, but seem impractical as agents of large-scale bioterrorism without an extensive delivery system or network. Unfortunately, the increasing centralization of processing and animal and poultry husbandry to some degree obviates the need for complex delivery systems and networks. In October 1999, the U.S. General Accounting Office released a report indicating that "although few actual incidents or threats of deliberate food contamination with a biological agent have occurred to date, there is little assurance that this track record will continue."

If you sift through enough expert testimony, a picture of how to avoid or mitigate a bioterrorist attack also begins to emerge, one that features ongoing surveillance; lab diagnostic capability; epidemiologic investigation; traceback/recallability; and training for emergency medical response.

Some members of industry and government endorse a program of Threat Analysis and Critical Control Point (TACCP), modeled after -- you guessed it -- the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) concept. The TACCP model apparently includes a crisis plan that addresses product, personnel, raw material integrity and overall crisis management.

Most experts agree that bioterrorism's goal is to promote fear and economic loss rather than massive casualties, but that's of little solace to anyone who falls in its path.

Sad to say, it's a new world -- one requiring that we not only be brave but also vigilant.

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