Potential Bioterror Attack on U.S. Milk Supply Examined

University professors study potential attacks using botulinum toxin

A mere 4 grams of botulinum toxin dropped into a milk production facility could cause serious illness and even death for 400,000 people in the United States.

Investments that would cost the public only 1 cent more per half-gallon of milk could prevent this nightmare scenario, according to Lawrence M. Wein of the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

Wein, the Paul E. Holden professor of management science, has been conducting a series of studies on the effects of various potential terrorist activities in United States.

Not only milk, but soft drinks, fruit and vegetable juices, processed tomato products, and even grains - anything that goes through large-scale storage and production and rapid distribution - could be at risk for such an attack, with catastrophic consequences for the American public, Wein says in his most recent study, conducted with Yifan Liu, a PhD candidate at the Institute for Computational and Mathematical Engineering at Stanford University.

In the case of milk, says Wein, all it would take is for someone to obtain a suitable strain of botulinum toxin - the most poisonous substance known to humans - from an overseas black market lab, grow it in culture, and pour it into an unlocked milk tank or milk truck. From there, the contaminated milk would make its way into large processing silos, where it would poison at least 100,000 additional gallons.

Only a fraction of the toxin would remain active after pasteurization, but according to Wein's mathematical model, that could be enough to infect the approximately 400,000 people who would drink the milk. "Only 1 millionth of a gram is enough to poison an adult," says Wein, "and there would be more than that per person remaining in the distributed milk to do the job."

Wein and Liu's paper was published in the July 12 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) accompanied by an unusual editorial addressing some of the debate on scientific research vs. national security that has arisen since prepublication copies were circulated to a limited list of academics.

Based on their mathematical models of current distribution of milk, Wein and Liu estimate that within 48 hours of ingesting contaminated milk, consumers would begin to display symptoms. If authorities were able to notify the public within the subsequent 24 hours to stop drinking milk (an ambitious time period), the contamination could be reduced.

However, of those eventually exposed, "about half would die," says Wein. The death toll would be high (as much as 50,000 he estimated), due to the current insufficient supply of ventilators and antitoxins in the U.S. medical system.

However, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of poison, says Wein, who presented his findings on the case of bioterrorism and milk to the assistant secretary of public health preparedness and several members of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Wein calls for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to make current volunteer safety guidelines mandatory, such as requiring that milk tanks and trucks be locked and that two people be present when milk is transferred from one stage of the supply chain to the next.

Before releasing milk into silos, milk-tank truck drivers should be required to employ a new 15-minute test that can detect the four types of toxins associated with human botulism. Drivers currently are required to wait for an antibiotic residue test and the toxin test could be conveniently accomplished at the same time.

"A single set of tests can be performed on each 5,500 gallon truck at a cost to milk producers that would raise consumer prices only several cents a gallon," says Wein. "We the public need to ask ourselves whether the elimination of this catastrophic threat is worth a 1 cent increase in the cost of a half-gallon of milk."

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