Hepatitis outbreak a sobering reminder of vulnerability


The hepatitis A outbreak that has killed three in Pennsylvania has provided a sobering reminder of just how vulnerable the world's food-distribution system is to either intentional or inadvertent tainting.

New federal regulations regarding the transportation and distribution of fresh produce, designed to address food-terrorism concerns, will take effect next month. Nevertheless, many food-safety experts maintain that the supply chain will continue to be vulnerable.

The outbreak, which sickened patrons of a Chi-Chi's restaurant near Pittsburgh, has been traced to contaminated green onions shipped from Mexico.

Only a month ago, the Food and Drug Administration issued a report assessing the risk of food terrorism and concluded "there is a high likelihood, over the course of a year, that a significant number of people will be affected by an act of food terrorism, or by an incident of unintentional food contamination that results in serious food-borne illness."

Given the frequency of food-borne disease - the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates about 1 in 4 Americans is sickened by food each year - anticipating a significant outbreak of food-borne illness in a year's time is akin to predicting the Pittsburgh Steelers will field a football team next season.

But with a new and evolving threat such as bioterrorism, FDA officials insist, any kind of prediction must be dubious.

"Can (food terrorism) happen? Yes," said Ted Labuza, a professor of food science and technology at the University of Minnesota. "Will it happen? I don't know."

Hepatitis A virus is an unlikely agent of bioterrorists. Growing this or any other intestinal virus in sufficient quantity for sabotage is all but impossible technically, said Lee-Ann Jaykus, a food scientist at North Carolina State University who studies hepatitis A in produce.

Hepatitis A is endemic in much of the world, but that doesn't make it easy to gather fresh virus. The only way Jaykus can do her own research, she noted, is by collaborating with physicians who can provide her virus from their hepatitis patients.

Hepatitis A nevertheless is a prime example of how devastating a food-borne disease can be. In what may be the largest food-borne disease incident in history, almost 300,000 people in China were sickened with hepatitis A caused by tainted clams in 1991.

"If an unintentional contamination of one food, such as clams, can affect 300,000 individuals, a concerted, deliberate attack on food could be devastating, especially if a more dangerous chemical, biological or radionuclear agent were used," according to the FDA's risk assessment.

Food solves one of the biggest hurdles facing potential bioterrorists: a delivery system.

Placing anthrax spores in postal envelopes killed five people and sickened 17 in fall 2001 and created a panic in places like Washington. If a terrorist intended to kill or disable large numbers, a more efficient delivery system would be needed.

CDC officials say sabotage of food and water would be the easiest way to launch a bioterror attack.

Anthrax and botulism are often cited as possible bioterror weapons because they can be deadly; both can contaminate food. Other likely bioweapons are less deadly, but perhaps easier to disperse - agents like salmonella, shigella, E. coli 0157:H7 and ricin.

Large-scale food terrorism is speculation today, but it may not be for long. U.S. troops in Afghanistan, for instance, found U.S. agricultural documents that had been translated into Arabic and training manuals in al Qaeda safe houses that included extensive sections on agricultural terrorism.

Early this year, the CIA investigated a possible al Qaeda plot in London to use ricin to poison the food of British troops. And in September, the FBI issued a warning that terrorists might be using two toxins, nicotine and solanine, to poison food and water.

Many acts of food sabotage have been reported through the years, though many seem to have more to do with disgruntled employees than international terrorists. For instance, a supermarket employee in Michigan last December mixed an oily insecticide including nicotine into 250 pounds of ground beef. More than 100 people fell sick.

In a celebrated example of bioterrorism, a religious cult used salmonella to contaminate salad bars to disrupt an election in a small Oregon town in 1984. More than 750 people were sickened and 45 hospitalized.

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.shns.com.)

(Lillian Thomas can be reached at lthomas@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3566.)