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Assessing the Risk of Intentional Contamination

In what was the latest reminder that any nation’s food supply can be vulnerable to intentional contamination, CBS News recently reported the sketchy details of a supposed terrorist plot to slip poisons into restaurant and hotel salad bars and buffets.

Such an attack has long been considered a remote but theoretical possibility, especially in a country like the United States, where Americans eat, on average, about four meals a week outside the home and where the restaurant industry has a very high rate of employee turnover.

Security experts speculate that the primary goal of such a scheme would not be target restaurants to sicken or kill scores of people, but to create mass panic over food that would lead to economic chaos.

In the U.S., the Department of Homeland Security is responsible for analyzing the risks associated with intentional food contamination and for communicating the threat levels to  local governments.  As part of this charge, the Food and Drug Administration, through the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN), has developed a working framework for local and state governments to use as a means to assess potential threats to food.

This framework consists of identifying the three components necessary to lead to intentional contamination:  the aggressor (whether a disgruntled employee or an agent working for a terrorist organization), the routes of gaining access to food and food-endangering pathogens or poisons.


A recent study led by Dr. Sudha Xirasagar and published in The Journal of Public Health Management Practice developed a standard survey to try diagnose the status of food defense in the restaurant industry.  Funded by grants from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the FDA, the survey’s aim is to identify potential gaps in food defense and also to raise awareness among hospitality industry workers about possible points of vulnerability within their own establishments.

In their abstract, the survey’s authors explain that food safety consists of following standard practices (for instance, hand washing, cooking to proper temperatures, preventing cross contamination) that, if violated, can cause foodborne illness.

By contrast, food defense requires being alert to unusual variations from the norm.

The survey was drafted with the help of experts and then validated with geographically representative restaurant-industry focus groups.  It involves 41 items on food defense, 11 on restaurant characteristics and 6 on demographics with questions that relate to hiring and background checks in the high-turnover restaurant business, employee management and training, vendors and delivery, facility and operational security and monitoring.

For instance, the survey asks about the training practices for food handlers and other hourly workers, and whether procedures are in place to keep personal belongings and non-workers out of food preparation areas.  In general, the survey seeks to understand how secure a restaurant or other food facility is and how this is monitored.  Finally, the survey asks whether restaurant owners are concerned about intentional contamination and how vulnerable they think their facility might be food tampering. 

“Food defense is best served by advisory guidelines for autonomous application … , ” the authors note, adding ” … public health agencies need survey tools that can yield action-relevant data …”

Contamination of food for malevolent purposes is nothing new but is rare, and typically has involved disgruntled employees.  One example of intentional contamination that received widespread attention was seen in videos posted on YouTube in April 2009 that showed employees of one Domino’s deliberating adulterating food items.  In 2003 an employee of a Michigan grocery store tainted ground beef with a nicotine-containing pesticide. In 1997 a lab worker laced doughnuts with Shigella and invited his co-workers to eat them.

In what has been the only known case of food terrorism for political gains in the U.S., followers of the Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh in 1984 contaminated a salad bar in Oregon with Salmonella to keep local residents from voting in a county election. 

© Food Safety News
  • Doc Mudd

    The recent S.510 ‘debate’ uncovered an important potential source of willful food contamination – small operators who will tolerate safe food production practices only so long as those do not cost anything and are no personal bother.
    The stunning willingness of small producers to plump their own profits by breezily compromising consumer safety was made readily apparent in many of their belligerent comments posted here at FSN as the S.510 debate raged. A task force of self-proclaimed ‘small producers’ (small, but possessed of a gargantuan sense of entitlement) insisted they be exempted completely from compliance with intelligent food safety guidelines. And, their activist lobby appears to have succeeded with Senator Tester’s help. We are now made to understand that it is considered an honor to rank among any small group of victims poisoned by a charming local yokel.
    Also shockingly apparent from the dialogue is small producers’ general ignorance and/or deliberate misunderstanding of food safety science. Blithe assumptions and lofty (albeit unfounded) claims of ‘safe and healthy’ for their dubious products are frightening, at best. Truth in advertising comes away a little dented and tarnished to further the heroic hobby farmers’ fantasy, I fear.
    We now ‘know our farmer’ a whole lot better than we did. Kind of a disappointment, but good to know when strolling around the local farmers market. Damn.

  • Agricultural terrorism presents itself as a viable threat. The meat, poultry and agriculture industries have been identified as “soft” targets that are extremely vulnerable to criminal acts.
    Restaurants, wineries and all food service companies can fall prey.

  • Agricultural terrorism presents itself as a viable threat. The meat, poultry and agriculture industries have been identified as “soft” targets that are extremely vulnerable to criminal acts.
    Restaurants, wineries and all food service companies can fall prey.