The World Health Organization on Friday urged governments to draw up "farm to fork" contingency plans to protect against the risk of terrorists using the food chain as a potentially devastating weapon.
The U.N. health agency said that most countries have some form of emergency response system for catastrophes like floods or epidemics, but were far less prepared to deal with threats stemming from the use of food as a vehicle for delivering harmful agents.
"As a matter of prudence, all countries should put in place basic contingency plans for food safety emergencies," the WHO said, stressing that its main concern remains accidental food poisoning, which kills up to 1.5 million people per year, rather than deliberate contamination.
A WHO report cited recent mass outbreaks of foodborne disease as an indication of the scale of the potential risk: nearly 170,000 people fell sick in the United States in 1985 after consuming contaminated pasteurized milk; nearly 300,000 people were infected with hepatitis A associated with eating clams in China in 1991; some 224,000 people were infected by salmonella from tainted ice cream mix in the United States in 1994.
"If an unintentional outbreak from one food, such as clams, can affect 300,000 individuals, a concerted, deliberate attack could be devastating, especially if a more dangerous chemical, biological or radionuclear agent was used," the WHO said.
The impact would be especially far-reaching if the contamination occurred at the start of the food chain — say in the slaughterhouse or food-processing factory.
Incidents of deliberate contamination have been fairly isolated. In 1984 members of a religious cult contaminated salad bars in the United States with salmonella strain, causing 751 cases of salmonellosis, a bacterial illness with symptoms that include diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramps.
But fears about the vulnerability of the food chain to deliberate contamination by terrorists — as well as the risk of bioterrorism — have soared in the wake of the al Qaeda terrorist attacks against the United States and other targets.
The U.S. government has taken a number of steps, including recommendations for criminal background checks on workers hired by farms and food companies, and closer scrutiny of water supplies. It has also proposed legislative changes which would require food importers to notify the government before their products could enter the United States.
The WHO drew up its own recommendations, "Terrorist Threats to Food, Guidance for Establishing and Strengthening Prevention and Response Systems," following requests from its member governments.
The agency said countries should expand infectious disease surveillance networks to include food poisoning. It suggested including the veterinary health sector to pick up any possible instances of deliberate infection of animals, and pharmacists to report on unusual demand for anti-diarrheal agents or other medicines.
It drew up specific guidance for the food industry — emphasizing better training, tighter security, established emergency procedures, and screening of employees. It said food processors should have sound information about their suppliers, use reputable transport companies. and have secure access to all sources of water.
"Coverage from farm to fork needs to be incorporated into response planning for food safety emergencies, including food terrorism," it said.