A key Intelligence source has confirmed the threat of poisoning in the hospitality industry as “credible.” Department of Homeland Security officials, along with members of the Department of Agriculture and the FDA, have briefed a small group of corporate security officers from the hotel and restaurant industries about the possibility of poisons being used to contaminate salad bars and buffet lines at hotels and restaurants.
The plotters are believed to be al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the same terror group that attempted to blow up cargo planes over the east coast in October.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has praised the cargo attack, part of what it called “Operation Hemorrhage” a strategy that involves causing a heavy economic burden to an already faltering economy.
“We operate under the premise that individuals prepared to carry out terrorist acts are in this country”
— Sec. of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano on Dec. 6, 2010.
A plot uncovered earlier this year is said to involve the use of two poisons – ricin and cyanide – slipped into salad bars and buffets. Manuals and videos on jihadist websites explain how to easy it is to make both poisons.
Ricin is a protein that is extracted from the castor bean (Ricinus communis). Ricin may cause allergic reactions, and is toxic, though the severity depends on the route of exposure.
The LD50 of ricin is around 22 micrograms per kilogram (1.76mg for an average adult, around 1/228 of a standard aspirin tablet (0.4g gross)) in humans if exposure is from injection or inhalation. Oral exposure to ricin is far less toxic and lethal dose can be up to 20-30mg/kg.
Ricin is poisonous if inhaled, injected, or ingested, acting as a toxin by the inhibition of protein synthesis. It is resistant, but not impervious, to digestion by peptidases. By ingestion, the pathology of ricin is largely restricted to the gastrointestinal tract where it may cause mucosal injuries; with appropriate treatment, most patients will make a full recovery. Because the symptoms are caused by failure to make protein, they emerge after a variable delay from a few hours to a full day after exposure. Ingestion of ricin is treatable.
Cyanide makes the cells of an organism unable to use oxygen, primarily through the inhibition of cytochrome c oxidase. Inhalation of high concentrations of cyanide causes a coma with seizures, apnea, and cardiac arrest, with death following in a matter of minutes. At lower doses, loss of consciousness may be preceded by general weakness, giddiness, headaches, vertigo, confusion, and perceived difficulty in breathing. At the first stages of unconsciousness, breathing is often sufficient or even rapid, although the state of the victim progresses towards a deep coma, sometimes accompanied by pulmonary edema, and finally cardiac arrest. Skin color turns pink or red from cyanide-hemoglobin complexes that form in red blood cells. A fatal dose for human can be as low as 1.5 mg/kg body weight.
Initially a poisoning attack could look like food poisoning. If the attack occurred at a hotel, an extra alarm Emergency Medical Service response would be sent to the hotel, bringing several ambulances to the scene.
There would be fear at first that something was in the air or that something involving a contagion was going on, until the source of the poison was identified.
On Monday Department of Homeland Security spokesman Sean Smith said, “We are not going to comment on reports of specific terrorist planning. However, the counterterrorism and homeland security communities have engaged in extensive efforts for many years to guard against all types of terrorist attacks, including unconventional attacks using chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear materials. Indeed, Al-Qa’ida has publicly stated its intention to try to carry out unconventional attacks for well over a decade, and AQAP propaganda in the past year has made similar reference.
“Finally, we get reports about the different kinds of attacks terrorists would like to carry out that frequently are beyond their assessed capability.”
FDA regulates $417 billion worth of domestic food, $49 billion worth of imported foods, and $59 billion worth of cosmetics sold across State lines. This regulation takes place from the products’ point of U.S. entry or processing to their point of sale, with numerous food establishments (including food manufacturers, processors, and warehouses) and cosmetic firms. In addition, roughly 600,000 restaurants and institutional food service establishments and an estimated 235,000 supermarkets, grocery stores, and other food outlets are regulated by State and local authorities that receive guidance, model codes, and other technical assistance from FDA. FDA enhances its programs by supporting State and local authorities with training and guidance to ensure uniform coverage of food establishments and retailers.
A Sector-Specific Plan
The DHS published a document in May 2007 entitled Food (Meat, Poultry, and Egg Products) and Agriculture Critical Infrastructure and Key Resources Sector-Specific Plan as input to the National Infrastructure Protection Plan. Some of the details of the document include the following.
Sector Mission and Vision
The mission of the Food and Agriculture Sector is to protect against an attack on the food supply, including production agriculture, that would pose a serious threat to public health, safety, welfare, or to the national economy, and to provide the central focus for a steadily evolving and complex industry/sector, with particular emphasis on the protection and strengthening of the Nation’s capacity to supply safe, nutritious, and affordable food.
Securing this sector presents unique challenges because U.S. agriculture and food systems are extensive, open, interconnected, diverse, and complex structures providing attractive potential targets for terrorist attacks. Due to the rapidity by which food products move in commerce to consumers and the time required for detection and identification of a causative agent, attacks on the food and agriculture sector-such as animal or plant disease introduction or food contamination-could result in severe animal, plant, or public health and economic consequences. The government and industry members have set the following vision for the sector:
The Government Coordinating Council (GCC) and the Sector Coordinating Council (SCC) work collaboratively to accomplish the mission and to fulfill the vision and are the primary method of coordination for the sector security partners. The GCC, with representation from Federal, State, local, and tribal governments, is the public sector portion of the food and agriculture public-private partnership; the SCC is a self-governing body representing the food and agriculture industry.
The FDA and USDA conduct vulnerability assessments and provide scales used by the agencies for scoring each attribute of a threat. These scales were developed on the assumption that mass mortality is a goal of terrorist organizations. It is important to remember, however, that any intentional food contamination could also have major psychological and economic impacts on the affected industry.
A CARVER + Shock Score exists that involves a scale that assesses Criticality (loss of life and economic cost), Accessibilty (the ease of access a terrorist could reach a target), Recuperabilty (the time it takes a facility to recover from an attack), Vulnerability (the east of threat agents/poisons inflict physiological/biological damage), Effect (the percentage of facility production shutdown), Recognizability (the recognizability of the target by the terrorist), Shock (the combined measure of health, psychological and collateral national economic impacts of a successful attack on the target system). For example, the highest scale for Shock Criteria (9-10) involves a target that has major historical, cultural, religious, or other symbolic importance. Loss of more than 10,000 lives, major impact on sensitive subpopulations (eg., children or elderly), or National economic impact of more than $100 billion.