A man, not yet publically identified has been arrested, after allegedly spraying produce, and possibly salad and hot food bars in several Ann Arbor, Michigan, grocery stores with a mixture of mouse poison (unidentified) and an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. The motive has not yet been determined, but the case is being handled by the FBI, opening up the possibility that the suspect will be charged under federal law, including perhaps those regulations related to the Bioterrorism Act. To date no sickness has been attributed to the criminal acts, which may have extended over multiple weeks. Local Public Health Authorities and the FBI have not yet made any detailed statements related to the investigation.

Regardless of the motive, these incidents illustrate a food defense vulnerability, which may be exploited by other copycat adversaries. Given the incident, it would be wise for all grocery stores and restaurants having open produce or salad bars to review and perhaps modify preventative measures in their food defense plans. The incidents also illustrates that food defense and food safety are inextricably linked, since the end result of an event would be the same—namely a consumer made ill by a poisonous chemical contaminating a food product that is ingested. The element separating a food safety event versus a food defense event is whether the cause was intentional or accidental.  

Although chemical in its nature, and causing no apparent sickness, this event nevertheless brings to mind the intentional attacks by followers of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh using Salmonella sprayed on 10 salad bars in The Dales, Oregon, in 1984, which sickened over 700 individuals.  

Information regarding the incident will be updated as it becomes available.

Note added in proof: Kyle Andrew Bessemer of Ann Arbor was arraigned on charges of two counts of poisoning food, drink, medicine or water supply causing property damage and two counts of poisoning drink, medicine or water supply in front of Judge Elizabeth Hines of Ann Arbor’s 15th District Court Thursday afternoon. According to the complaint read in court, Bessemer said he had a history of mental illness and he believed someone was trying to poison him (from mlive.com).

Robert A. Norton, Ph.D., is a professor at Auburn University and a member of the Auburn University Food System Institute’s core faculty. A long-time consultant to federal and state law enforcement agencies, the Department of Defense and industry, he specializes in intelligence analysis, weapons of mass destruction defense and national security. For more information on the topic or for more detailed discussions about specific security related needs, he can be reached at nortora@auburn.edu or by phone at (334) 844-7562.