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A visiting researcher says food bioterrorism is unlikely to kill or sicken enough people to make it viable.
By WES ALLISON
© St. Petersburg Times,
published November 30, 2001
TAMPA -- Parts of the nation's food supply could be easy targets for bioterrorists, but it would be difficult to use food to cause massive sickness or death, an expert on the topic said Thursday.
Dr. Richard V. Lee, chief of geographic medicine at the State University of New York at Buffalo, said terrorists would be more likely -- and probably more successful -- to target a single place or group of people, or to try to disrupt the nation's food supply.
"You could not immobilize Tampa. We have too many sources of food, we have too many supermarkets, too many farmers' markets, too many corner markets," Lee said.
"It's not something which I think should strike fear into the hearts of everybody. On the other hand, it is a potential, and it's a real threat."
Lee was in Tampa Wednesday and Thursday to lecture at the University of South Florida College of Public Health about the potential dangers of terrorism to the nation's food supply. He was invited by the USF Center for Biological Defense.
The best way to sicken large numbers of people is to contaminate a giant processing center where meat or other foods are produced, packaged or distributed, he said.
But bacterial infections routinely are discovered by the companies or government inspectors. The discovery usually leads to recalls and warnings before too many get sick, he said. That system should help protect the public.
A terrorist also would need "vast amounts of a chemical" to poison a municipal water supply, because of the size and filtering systems of most reservoirs, he said.
"Unless you take it away, burn all the fields, food is not a great weapon of mass destruction. It's not going to kill a lot of people unless you starve them," Lee said.
However, "food is a very efficient and very useful method of attacking individuals or attacking groups," he said. "It's the kind of thing where you have to get into the kitchen, as it were."
The best protections are safe cooking and kitchen cleaning practices, he said.
The USF Center for Biological Defense has two food-related projects, said Dr. Jacqueline Cattani, the center's director. One is searching for ways to quickly identify agents, naturally occuring or terrorist added, responsible for food-borne outbreaks.
The other is studying plant pathogens, such as fungi and other diseases, that could be used to damage crops. While such pathogens may not hurt people directly, major infestations could disrupt the food supply and the nation's economic health, Cattani said. "That could be devastating."
Dr. John Sinnott, chief of infectious diseases at USF and Tampa General Hospital and senior adviser to the state Secretary of Health, recalled how a religious sect in Oregon infected several restaurant salad bars with salmonella, sickening 700 people. Some died.
It's unclear how serious a threat food bioterrorism truly is, Sinnott said. "They need veterinarians and food processors to sit down and discuss it, to determine if it is a big deal."