WHO warns of terrorist attacks using food, offers defense tips

Feb 3, 2003 (CIDRAP News) – The World Health Organization (WHO) warns in a new report that nations should take steps to defend themselves against food contamination by terrorists and the devastating human and economic damage that could result.

"The malicious contamination of food for terrorist purposes is a real and current threat, and deliberate contamination of food at one location could have global public health implications," states the 50-page report, titled "Terrorist Threats to Food: Guidance for Establishing and Strengthening Prevention and Response Systems."

Civilian food supplies have been contaminated many times in history, often in military campaigns but more recently in peacetime, the report says. For example, a religious cult caused 751 cases of salmonellosis by contaminating salad bars in The Dalles, Ore., in 1984.

Unintentional cases of food contamination have suggested the potential damage that terrorists could do, the report says. For example, an outbreak of hepatitis A related to tainted clams affected nearly 300,000 people in Shanghai, China, in 1991, and contaminated ice cream caused 224,000 salmonellosis cases in the United States in 1994.

Member states of the WHO have expressed concern that terrorists could use chemical, biological, or radionuclear agents to contaminate food supplies, the report notes. The document contains suggestions for integrating terrorism countermeasures into existing food safety programs. It also offers guidance to ensure that existing disease surveillance and control systems are sensitive enough to meet the threat of any food safety emergency.

"Prevention is best achieved through a cooperative effort between government and industry, given that the primary means for minimizing food risks lie with the food industry," the report says. It includes a nine-page appendix suggesting specific measures for industry to take.

See also:

Full text of report (pdf)

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