The Bioterror in you Burger


By Brian Halweil
Research Associate, Worldwatch Institute

When the foot-and-mouth virus spread through the British countryside this past spring--costing the nation an estimated $6 billion--conspiracy theorists speculated that the introduction was an intentional act of biowarfare. While this particular disease doesn't harm humans, it can weaken livestock herds, decimate farm incomes, devastate consumer confidence in the food supply, and bring rural economies to a standstill with quarantines and other restrictions.

Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman recently cited her department’s success at containing food-and-mouth as proof that the U.S. government is prepared to respond to any terrorist attacks on the food we eat. But like so many official statements during the current round of anthrax attacks, her optimism may be sadly misplaced.

Consider one particularly vulnerable link in our food chain: the modern meat processing plant. Operating around the country, the typical plant can process millions of pounds of ground beef or hotdogs or coldcuts in just a few days.

In comparison to a bioterrorism target like a water treatment plant, meat processing plants have virtually no security, and their workforces are wide open to infiltration. Many of the nation's slaughterhouses are staffed with poorly trained and poorly paid migrant workers, often with little documentation or background checks. The typical plant turns over its entire staff each year, virtually guaranteeing that no one really knows who is working there.

Meatpacking is already the nation’s most life-threatening occupation. The rate of serious injury--losing a limb or an eye--is five times the national average. In 1999, more than one out of four of America’s 150,000 meatpacking workers suffered a job-related injury or illness. The safety of the food chain is probably not the primary concern for workers who are struggling to avoid being mauled by mechanical knives, or ducking two-ton carcasses moving by at breakneck speed.

Yet, in many ways, these people--and the conditions at these plants--form an unlikely first line of defense against food-borne illnesses.

A terrorist could contaminate a huge amount of store-ready meat with a strategically placed sample of a species like E. coli or salmonella or listeria. And unlike anthrax, which is hard to obtain and prepare, these bioweapons are readily available.

Studies in the October 18 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine demonstrate that government regulations already fail to guarantee the safety of our food. One study shows that one in five samples of ground meat obtained in U.S. supermarkets carried antibiotic-resistant salmonella. Another study found that more than half of the chickens bought from 26 supermarkets in Georgia, Maryland, Minnesota and Oregon carried resistant forms of the sometimes fatal germ Enterococcus faecium.

In the case of our food chain, a public health disaster is just waiting to happen, without any terrorist threats whatsoever. Les Friedlander, a former USDA veterinarian, suggests that someone working in a plant could easily obtain a sample of salmonella or E.coli or some other life-threatening agent from the plant’s meat inspection lab, and use this sample for large-scale contamination.

A gradual gutting of the nation’s meat inspection workforce and authority in recent decades means that current regulations and measures don’t even catch the unintentional introductions of these contaminants.

Just in the first 9 months of 2001, the USDA announced 60 recalls, totaling nearly 30 million pounds of meat.

Unfortunately, the vulnerability of this meat link in the food chain is not unique. From a biowarfare perspective, the easiest targets are genetically similar populations of organisms for whom a single bug could easily infect the majority of individuals. Consider that 90 percent of the nations dairy cows are closely related Holsteins. The nation’s largest pork producer, Smithfield, controls 12 million hogs that are virtual clones of each other. The factory farms that confine tens of thousands of animals in close and unhygienic quarters or the monoscapes of wheat or soybeans that cover much of the Heartland resemble the proverbial sitting duck.

We don’t need the Hollywood scriptwriters that the Central Intelligence Agency retained recently to “think outside the box” on potential terrorist threats to the food we eat. Instead, while public awareness on matters of safety is so high, we have a perfect opportunity to clean up the food system from within, creating more hygienic living conditions for livestock, placing restrictions on antibiotic use in feed, and providing more humane working conditions for slaughterhouse workers.

In the same way that Upton Sinclair in The Jungle cast a spotlight on the stomach-turning practices of turn of 19th century meat processing industry, the threat of terrorism is casting a spotlight on industry after industry, from mail delivery to air travel, exposing vulnerabilities that were often known but never taken seriously.

In the past the public health argument for cleaning up America’s food chains has repeatedly failed to inspire politicians to support the changes we need to protect all Americans from contaminated food. If we are lucky, today’s rallying cries for homeland security will finally lead to meaningful actions to secure our food supplies from the threats of both accidental and terrorist epidemics.

Brian Halweil is a Research Associate at the Worldwatch Institute, a non-profit environmental and public policy research institute, in Washington DC. He focuses on the social and ecological consequences of the way we produce food. He writes on biotechnolgy, loss of farmers, population and malnutrition.
An edited version of this commentary appeared in the Los Angeles Times on November 2, 2001