Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman recently cited her department's success at containing foot-and-mouth disease 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 cases, her optimism may be sadly misplaced.
Consider one particularly vulnerable link in our food chain: the modern meat processing plant. The typical plant can process millions of pounds of ground beef or hot dogs in a few days.
In comparison to a bioterrorism target such as a water treatment plant, meat processing plants have virtually no security. Further, many of the nation's slaughterhouses are staffed with poorly trained and poorly paid migrant workers, often with little documentation or without 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 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 the nation's 150,000 meatpacking workers suffered a job-related injury or illness. Yet in many ways, these people _ and the conditions at these plants _ are the first line of defense against food-borne illnesses.
Someone working in a plant could easily obtain a sample of salmonella or E. coli or other life-threatening agent from a plant's meat inspection lab and use this for large-scale contamination.
A terrorist could contaminate a huge amount of store-ready meat with a strategically placed sample of E. coli or salmonella or listeria. Unlike anthrax, which is difficult to obtain and prepare, these bioweapons are readily available.
Studies in the Oct. 18 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine demonstrate that government regulations 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 enterococcus bacterium.
A gradual gutting of the nation's meat inspection work force and authority in recent decades means that regulations and measures don't catch even the unintentional introductions of these contaminants. In the first nine months of 2001, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced 60 recalls totaling nearly 30-million pounds of meat.
From a biowarfare perspective, the easiest targets are genetically similar populations of organisms for which a single bug could easily infect the majority. Consider that 90 percent of the nation's 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 resemble the proverbial sitting duck.
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 past the public health argument for cleaning up U.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.
Los Angeles Times