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FDA warns of 'food terrorism'

WASHINGTON -- There is a "high likelihood" within the coming year of a deliberate attack or accidental outbreak in the US food supply that sickens a large number of people, the Food and Drug Administration said yesterday.

Although no specific threats were identified, the FDA said it came to the conclusion because of recent foodborne outbreaks and reports that the Al Qaeda terrorist network was plotting to poison the food supply.

"FDA has concluded that 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 foodborne illness," the agency said in a declassified report.

The food supply is especially vulnerable to an attack because of the broad range of biological and chemical agents that can be used, the FDA said.

The agency said salmonella, E. coli 0157:H7, and ricin pose a significant threat because they can be disseminated easily to food. Anthrax and botulism are considered the most deadly.

"The relative centralization of food production in the US and the global distribution of food products give food a unique susceptibility," the FDA said.

Last month, the FBI warned that "terrorists might use two naturally occurring toxins, nicotine and solanine, to poison US food or water supplies." The FBI said "terrorist manuals and documents" recovered in Afghanistan referred to the use of these substances as poisons.

Contaminated food sickens 1 of 4 Americans annually, or about 76 million illnesses and 5,000 deaths, according to government data. Almost all of the cases are unintentional.

The FDA said there were "many points of vulnerability to sabotage" in food production and distribution that could sicken many people. Due in part to this, the agency said officials in some cases may not be able to determine whether a foodborne outbreak was intentional.

Several cases of food sabotage have occurred in the United States. In 1984, a cult contaminated salad bars with salmonella to disrupt a local election. The case caused 751 illnesses, including 45 hospitalizations.

In May, a supermarket employee pleaded guilty to poisoning 200 pounds of ground beef with an insecticide containing nicotine. Although the meat was sold in only one store, 111 people fell ill.

The FDA said the food supply also can be a target because of the potential for great economic loss.

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