Many consider the 1993 Jack in the Box Escherichia coli outbreak to be the ‘9/11’ of the food industry. The large foodborne pathogen outbreak sickened over 600 people and took the lives of four children. One can easily compare these two turning points. They both took place during the first year of a president’s first term in office—during Bill Clinton’s inaugural weekend and about 9 months into that of George W. Bush. Both events changed how Americans looked at the safety and security of common things—the all-American hamburger and a trip to the airport. Both ultimately triggered new concerns and even new industries—in areas of public health and homeland security.

A 2013 report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirms that E. coli and other foodborne pathogen outbreaks have not decreased over the last two decades. Their comprehensive, 10-year study documents 67,752 reported illnesses connected to 13,405 food-related outbreaks reported during the 10-year period of 1998–2008.[1] Other organizations, such as the World Health Organization (WHO), have used studies of foodborne pathogen outbreaks to address our needs in this post-9/11 world.

Not even a year had passed since the attack on the World Trade Center when the World Health Assembly, the decision-making body of the WHO, adopted a 2002 resolution expressing serious concern about threats against civilian populations by deliberate use of agents disseminated via food. Later that year, WHO published “Terrorist Threats to Food” —a food safety/food terrorism document for national government policy makers.[2] In the document’s preface, the WHO classifies food safety as an essential element of modern, global public health security. 

In their document, WHO focuses on food, food ingredients, and water—in the forms of food ingredients and of bottled water. The organization defines food terrorism as:

“an act or threat of deliberate contamination of food for human consumption with biological, chemical, and physical agents or radionuclear materials for the purpose of causing injury or death to civilian populations and/or disrupting social, economic or political stability.”

In outlining the potential effects of food terrorism, the WHO utilizes data from “unintended” foodborne disease outbreaks to describe the toll of potential disease and death. The document looks at how a single incident of “unintentional contamination” of just one kind of food can infect hundreds of thousands of people with a “serious debilitating disease,” then goes on to extrapolate the effects of some more deliberate and dangerous attack on our food supply.

The impact on trade and the economy is discussed as a “primary motive” for food terrorism. Recalls in American markets of foreign fruits resulted in bankruptcy of international growers and shippers after consumers around the globe shunned such products. The WHO document details specific events in recent history when individual U.S. recalls of domestic ground beef contaminated with E. coli O157:H7 and lunch meats contaminated with Listeria numbered in the 20 millions of pounds of affected product each. 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food Safety Inspection Service lists on its webpage a great amount of information online for each recall issued in the U.S. The number of entries for individual recalls is staggering. Not only are the examples listed by the WHO the tip of the iceberg in terms of the numbers of recalls and the quantity of food products adulterated, but a look at data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shines more light on scope of this economic impact.[3] When analyzing Consumer Price Index average price data specific for the products and the year of the recalls, one learns that the approximate dollar value loss of just the two beef recalls listed in the WHO document come in at $44 million and $61 million respectively.

Again, the WHO points to the significant financial impact on the market and related stakeholders. Beyond the loss of profit and the closing of businesses and the financial toll on individual countries, however, the WHO uses lessons learned from outbreaks and recalls over the last 20 years to emphasize that foodborne diseases have the potential of causing the disruption of global trade and economic stability and may even impact political stability.

While the WHO published “Terrorist Threats to Food” to provide member governments with guidance on preventing the deliberate contamination of food, some of this document’s main points hold significant meaning for unintentional food problems. The understanding of those in the industry of every facet of the food chain, from farm to table, is critical in identifying and preventing failures and violations of the system.

Darin Detwiler, M.A.Ed., has over 20 years of involvement in food safety reform. He has worked with USDA to gain the federal regulation of food safe handling labels on meat. After earning national certification as a U.S. Food and Drug Administration Food Science Educator in 2003, the Secretary of Agriculture appointed Mr. Detwiler to two terms as a USDA regulatory policy advisor on the National Advisory Committee on Meat and Poultry Inspection (2004–2007).