By MARTIN SCHRAM
There was no sudden explosion, no siren, no news bulletin, no screams for help.
Just people, one by one, quietly calling the doctor or going to the hospital, suffering intestinal distress. So it took a while before officials realized this was something bigger: All who were sick had recently eaten fresh leafy greens. This was food poisoning. But it would be one full year before public health officials would finally understand that it was a bio-terror attack.
We are not talking here of the September 2006 crisis of E. coli bacteria contamination that started in bagged fresh spinach crisis and swept across America. This case occurred in September 1984 when "bio-terrorism" was not even in the news media lexicon. It was America’s first documented bio-terror attack.
It occurred in a small Oregon town with an unusual name: The Dalles. And it was perpetrated by a most unusual terrorist band: The cult of the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh _ the high priest with the long flowing beard and passions that included buying Rolls Royces. The Bhagwan’s bunch had moved into The Dalles in a most unstealthy way _ setting up a compound (in which it would later be discovered a large cache of weapons) and holding a press conference. They were seeking to take over the town in what you might think was a usual democratic way _ by winning the municipal election.
But they chose an electoral strategy so unusual that even Washington political consultants haven’t suggested it: To reduce the election turnout so cult members could outnumber local voters, the Bhagwan’s followers went to the local restaurants and surreptitiously sprayed salmonella bacteria on the salad bars. In less than a week, 751 townspeople were diagnosed with salmonella poisoning.
"The hospital at that time had 125 beds and every single bed was filled with victims," said Jeannie Senior, a reporter with The Oregonian, in Portland, who had written extensively about the cult and its compound. (She was interviewed for the 2003 PBS documentary series "Avoiding Armageddon," on which I was managing editor.) It is important today to remember how even sharp-eyed public health experts can take a wrong turn. For the federal, state and local public health officials initially concluded that The Dalles had been hit by accidental food poisoning.
"It was immensely frustrating to talk to the health officials who came into the area to study the outbreak," recalls The Oregonian’s Senior. She said she repeatedly tried to get officials from the Centers for Disease Control and state epidemiology experts to at least say, ‘This could have been deliberately caused’ _ but, she said, "They would never say it."
The officials blamed it on cross contamination caused by food handlers and left town. But in the fall of 1985, officials obtained a vial of salmonella from a Rajneesh medical lab. It was identical to the bacteria that struck The Dalles.
In 1986, two cult leaders pleaded no contest to charges including attempted murder. They received 20-year sentences, served just four and were released for good behavior. They then fled to Europe. The Bhagwan also fled there after receiving a 10-year suspended sentence and paying $400,000 in fines.
The bio-terror attack at The Dalles, as "Avoiding Armageddon" researcher Ted Leventhal noted in 2003, revealed poor investigative techniques at all levels and among all agencies. Information was not shared between scientists and law enforcement, which made it difficult to establish that a crime had been committed _ that it was a germ attack, not a natural disease outbreak.
Today, public health detectives moved with impressive swiftness to pin down the origin of the contaminated spinach _ the Natural Selection organic farm in Salinas, Calif. But only after it caused at least 114 people in 21 states to become ill, 18 with kidney failure, and the death of one Wisconsin woman.
It turns out that this summer Food and Drug Administration officials had detected a pattern of E. coli bacteria on Salinas Valley produce and had been inspecting packing plants there since August. Still the crisis occurred, on their watch, as they watched.
No one has suggested that there is a terror component to this latest crisis. But we remember that micro-terror case of two decades ago _ and so we must rule nothing in or out. We are more wary and more vigilant than before.
But on the front lines, we are still understaffed. And under-staffed FDA inspectors are a weak link in a food chain that is wrapped around our homeland security. We have just witnessed a demonstration of how terrorists might use our food conveyor belt to spread their deliberate contamination from coast to coast.
Even while we think our food detectives are on the case, eyes wide open.
(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)gmail.com.)