Ma Anand Sheela, one of the people behind the largest bioterrorism attack in U.S. history, is in the spotlight again. Amazon Studios has set up a film adaption of the story, titled “Sheela,” per Mike Fleming Jr. with Deadline. 

Priyanka Chopra Jonas, the actress, singer, producer and winner of the 50th Miss World pageant will star as Ma Anand Sheela in the film. The film is expected to raise awareness of the serious health threat of Salmonella poisoning.

 The largest bioterror attack in U.S. history

Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh

The 1984 terrorist attack came back into public focus in 2018 when Netflix released a documentary series called “Wild Wild Country.” The documentary told the story of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and the food poisoning terrorist attack on the people of The Dalles, OR, in 1984. More than 700 people contracted Salmonella infections after followers of Rajneesh, under Ma Anand Sheela’s instruction, contaminated salad bar ingredients in 10 local restaurants. 

Several thousand of Rajneesh’s followers had moved onto a ranch in rural Wasco County in 1981 and incorporated as a city they named Rajneeshpuram. They took political control of the small nearby town of Antelope and hoped to take over leadership of Wasco County because of land use conflicts caused by the commune’s drastic expansion.

The plan was to use the Samonella to make regular voters sick so the Rajneesh’s followers could be elected. Sheela and another leading Rajneeshpuram official ultimately were convicted on charges of attempted murder. After serving 39 months of 20-year sentences in a minimum-security federal prison, Sheela was released on good behavior. 

In all, 751 people were sickened in the attack. Forty-five people were hospitalized, but there were no fatalities, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Salmonella in the U.S. 36 years later

The U.S. attorney prosecuted Ma Anand Sheela for crimes related to the restaurant poisoning.  But all of the world’s 2,650 or so Salmonella strains continue to be allowed in U.S. meat and poultry, including Salmonella enterica Typhimurium, the strain used to poison the people of Wasco County. 

About 1.35 million infections, 26,500 hospital admissions, and 420 deaths occur annually due to Salmonella, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Attorneys representing the Center for Science in the Public Interest sued the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service in 2014 because the agency would not declare the most dangerous Salmonella strains as adulterants.

Food safety attorney Bill Marler wants the federal government to ban dozens of Salmonella strains from meat and poultry. Along with some victims and activist groups, Marler is petitioning FSIS to impose a ban and declare as adulterants a list of Salmonella strains.

“Accordingly, the petitioners urge the administration of FSIS to issue an interpretive rule declaring Outbreak Serotypes of Salmonella adulterants within the meanings of the FMIA and PPIA, ” the petition says. “By banning recurring serotypes in meat and poultry products, FSIS will take a significant leap forward in ensuring the safety of American consumers. As the burden of Salmonella infection within the U.S. steadily increases, immediate action on this issue is critical.”

Rick Schiller, Steven Romes, the Porter Family, Food & Water Watch, Consumer Federation of America, and Consumer Reports are among the Marler petitioners. Marler is managing partner of the Seattle-based food safety law firm of Marler Clark and publisher of Food Safety News.

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