Nation’s food supply found vulnerable to bioterrorism, says prof

Following Sept. 11, 2001, all kinds of thoughts filled Americans.

Ted Labuza thought immediately about food.

Labuza, a University professor for more than 30 years, teaches food safety classes. He had plenty of questions: Who’s protecting the country’s food supply? How safe is it? How easy would it be for someone to tamper with it?

Labuza and a team of University researchers have studied food distribution and processing models over the past year.

What they found scared him.

Labuza said they found there are few security measures in place to prevent damage to the food supply. They also discovered most technology in place will not detect possible dangers before infected foods reached the supermarket.

Hypothesizing with goods such as lettuce and potatoes, the researchers examined how a bioterrorism agent such as ricin, anthrax or other animal pathogen would spread when trucked over U.S. soil.

“If somebody ingested this toxin, what is the minimum, what is the average and what is the maximum time that it would take for symptoms to show up? What is the distribution in an area? We don’t have those answers,” Labuza said.

Although researchers can hypothesize, Labuza said, many variables impact the results of any bioterrorism action.

Another problem with planning is that large-scale bioterrorist threats have not occurred on U.S. soil, he said.

Yet another problem the food industry might face is that a terror agent could exist completely unnoticed in the environment for an extended period of time before people started getting sick, Labuza said.

Meanwhile, the toxin could be sitting on supermarket shelves and homes in several parts of the country, he said.

By then, Labuza said the bioterrorist would have reached thousands, the United States would have a national emergency and all Americans would look differently at the food on their dinner plates.

Labuza said bioterrorism prevention for food should be a priority.

President George W. Bush announced a food safety plan in his push for more homeland security. Officials say Bush will seek an 11 percent increase in the U.S. Agriculture Department’s 2004 budget to increase current food security measures.

Although he said he’s glad to see the president seek more food safety, Labuza said amount alone will not take care of the need.

“Anything is good,” he said. “The question is how the money is being directed.”

Labuza is concerned the money might ultimately be spread in too many directions and the research it funds won’t be specified enough to fund many strong security measures.

Labuza said current tests effectively destroy the food. However, he said, new tests are being developed that would allow scientists to test food without ruining it. Every item of food could then be tested.

Labuza is scheduled to speak about food safety from bioterrorism at the Center for Plants and Human Health forum from 1:30 to 3 p.m. Friday in the new Molecular and Cellular Biology Building, room 120.

Branden Peterson covers the St. Paul campus and welcomes comments [email protected]