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Agroterrorism: Attacking with food

by Leslie Schichtel
May 21, 2013


Leslie Schichtel/MEDILL

Leikin differentiated between weaponizing food in order to sabotage and innocent food poisoning at the Chicago History Museum.

In April food was used as a weapon when an unidentified person sent ricin-laced letters to President Obama and U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Ala.). Ricin, a derivative of castor beans, was the poison in this case of agroterrorism.

“This is the terrorism of the past and a potential arena for the future,” said Dr. Jerrold Leikin, director of medical toxicology at NorthShore University HealthSystem—OMEGA. “It all depends on the goals of the individual terrorists.”

Leiken was the speaker at the meeting Saturday of the Culinary Historians at the Chicago History Museum. Refreshments followed the program and fittingly included foods known as poisoning targets: mushrooms, Kool-Aid and cassava cake.

“This is food poisoning taken to a whole new level,” said Scott Warner, the program chair of Culinary Historians of Chicago. “It’s a truly toxic tale to tell.”

Agroterrorism is intentional food poisoning for, at times, political purposes. Toxicology is the science combining pharmacology, physiology and pathology, Leikin said.

“It’s an assault of external agents on the human body,” he said. These agents could be radiological, chemical or biological.

“Mortality appears to be low,” Leikin said. “But there’s a loss of confidence in food safety and food service overall along with secondary contamination issues.”

In contrast with food poisoning, multiple people are involved in carrying out agroterrorism. This added layer makes it more difficult to prevent and creates a threat security issue, Leikin said.

But the spread of contamination can be prevented. This starts with the food service workers, who are in actuality the “first responders,” a term traditionally applied to paramedics and police officers.

“This is really a continuum,” Leikin said. “And it doesn’t have to start at the hospital end—it can start at the food service end as well.”

Calling toxicology surveillance centers, such as a poison center, will help detect and contain it as much as possible.

Leikin said that the difference between everyday food poisoning and agroterrorism is the weaponization and the intention behind the offense.

If food poisoning is weaponized, there’s a real danger, and death can occur.

“Weaponization can increase dissemination and virulence of the biological toxins,” Leikin said.

The issues that come into play with weaponizing agents are making substances airborne and trying to concentrate the potency. Ricin is an example of this, for which there have been six cases in the past dozen years.

Audrey Beauvais, a former biochemist and a current “discerning cook,” was one of 25 people in attendance. She was working in the food service industry during the 1982 Tylenol scares in the Chicago area, during which seven people died after taking the poisoned capsules.

“It’s very easy for someone to dump something in the bins at the stores,” she said. “Most people are clueless—they are watching the kid in the shopping cart or looking for the next item on their lists—they’re not looking at the product in the bin.”

Beauvais appreciated Leikin’s goal to make the ordinary person more aware.

“You’ve got to be your own advocate today—you can’t count on Big Brother to take care of you,” she said. “With information, comes added power.”

Becoming more aware is the only reliable prevention strategy against falling victim to food terrorism.

“I’m just very careful about what I put into my mouth because I know the dangers that are out there,” Beauvais said. “I’m not paranoid—I just have a science background, and why take nameless chances?”