Food Products: Agroterrorism Target

Agricultural Disaster Preparedness and Recovery November 07, 2013 Print Friendly and PDF

mother and child selecting apples at a grocery store

The direct contamination of food with a biological or chemical agent is a potential threat that concerns both public health and government officials.

The first documented case of an intentional attack on ready-to-consume food products in the U.S. happened in The Dalles, Oregon in 1984. Followers of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh experienced conflict with local elected officials as they sought to expand their commune. In an attempt to influence local elections, cult members intentionally contaminated salad bars in the community with the bacteria Salmonella typhimurium.

As a result, 751 people became ill, some severely; no one died. The incident illustrates how a group can infect large numbers of people using food systems. This group’s motivation was to sicken people so they would not vote. There are several chemical agents that could cause much greater harm.

In January, 2003, 250 pounds of hamburger in a supermarket in Michigan were intentionally contaminated with a pesticide. The case resulted in 148 illnesses but no deaths. Randy Jay Bertram of Byron Center plead guilty to a charge of poisoning food with the intent to cause serious bodily injury. Prosecutors described him as a disgruntled employee.

The risk associated with intentional food contamination depends on the type of food, the amounts eaten by high risk groups (like children and people with weakened immune systems,) and the degree of processing/cooking the food is subjected to following potential contamination.

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This work is supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, New Technologies for Ag Extension project.