WEAPONIZING FOOD IS POSSIBLE, BUT NOT VERY PROBABLE

There's no aphorism that declares "in resignation, candor." But maybe there should be.Speaking at a news conference held in connection with his resignation as secretary of Health and Human Services several days ago, Tommy Thompson blurted out this well-reported observation: "For the life of me, I cannot understand why the terrorists have not attacked our food supply because it is so easy to do." He

There's no aphorism that declares "in resignation, candor." But maybe there should be.

Speaking at a news conference held in connection with his resignation as secretary of Health and Human Services several days ago, Tommy Thompson blurted out this well-reported observation: "For the life of me, I cannot understand why the terrorists have not attacked our food supply because it is so easy to do." He specified that "we are importing a lot of food from the Middle East, and it would be easy to tamper with that." Thompson asserted that he dwells on such hazards "every single night."

The least generous among us might wonder whether those ruminations were intended to alert an unwary nation, or as a call to action for terrorists. Naturally, it is the former, but the statement was sufficiently scary to prompt questioning of other governmental officials. That resulted in further comments, not all of which were reassuring. Here's one: Sen. Bill Frist, majority leader, told CNNfn that "we know of at least three of the major pathogens, or germs, that can be used as bioterror agents ... in food." Further, President George W. Bush, queried on the topic, allowed that "we're a large country with all kinds of avenues where somebody could inflict harm. We've made a lot of progress in protecting our country, and there's more work to be done, and this administration is committed to doing it."

Outgoing Secretary Thompson must be well versed about the utility of food as a mass-destruction medium, but it seems the degree of danger he outlined is a bit overdrawn. Even a non-scientist can figure out that food isn't an efficient means to deliver poisons or pathogens on a large scale. It would be exceedingly difficult to dose foodstuffs in quantities sufficient to harm a large number of people. It would be just as difficult to find an agent that is both immune to detection by consumers' senses and that would survive the long distribution process to be delivered to very many consumers.

So there's some thin reassurance about the food supply in that there are many better ways to intentionally inflict mass harm, if that's a goal. In short, what's possible is not necessarily probable. Indeed -- most likely after quiet reflection -- Thompson subsequently averred that "our nation is now more prepared than ever to protect the public," while, like Bush, warning that there's "more work to do."

What work? That brings us to the final development about this. As you'll see in the news article on Page 6, record-keeping rules mandated by the Bioterrorism Act of 2002 were issued last week by the Food and Drug Administration. The rules are intended to ensure that food manufacturing and distribution industries maintain records sufficient to identify, track down, and withdraw from distribution any product that becomes adulterated.

As was pointed out last week by industry surrogates Grocery Manufacturers of America and Food Marketing Institute, the industry has long had well-developed systems for maintaining such records, so the new rules can be implemented without onerous effect.