DHS embraces poisoned candy paranoia

2017-07-01-produce-dept-awlaki

Have you overheard the fry cooks at your local fast food establishment furtively discussing jihad amidst seemingly harmless banter about how customers are really better off not knowing what’s in the secret sauce? What about that potential Salafist lurking at the salad bar, measuring the dimensions of the sneeze-guard? If you’ve seen this kind of depravity going down, you may want to alert the authorities.

That is the message, more or less, of a deadly serious but nonetheless kind of funny new announcement from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which appears to embrace a revamped take on the old “Razor Blade in the Apple” theory that malevolent boogie-men are behind every blade of grass, or rather behind every door in the neighborhood on Halloween, ready to give out booby-trapped apples or poison candy. Despite their continued prevalence, there is little basis for such poisoned candy myths — nor for the existence of the kind of schemes the DHS envisions in its announcement.

“Terrorist and violent extremist groups have long expressed interest in poisoning and adulterating food and beverage supplies in the West,” notes the DHS announcement, “but rarely use this as a tactic.” The document, titled “Food Defense: Product Adulteration Within Reach of Violent Extremists and Insiders,” dated May 26 and marked unclassified but “for official use only,” was published online in late June by the transparency group PublicIntelligence.net.

“The mere threat of product adulteration in the Homeland almost certainly would cause psychological and economic harm,” the document notes. “While we have not seen any specific, credible terrorist threats against Homeland food production and distribution infrastructure, we cannot rule out the possibility of inspired violent extremists or disgruntled insiders attempting to adulterate or poison food and beverages with commonly available toxic industrial chemicals or crude biological toxins due to the relative ease of product manipulation, especially at the last point of sale, which criminal actors have demonstrated consistently in the past.”

According to the DHS announcement “recent incidents in Europe and Africa underscore the continued interest by some groups in targeting food products at point-of-sale, distribution, and storage,” and indeed, its author(s) succeed in pointing to a full three examples to illustrate the potential for a scary trend — though one of them is likely a little less scary than it appears at first glance.

“Combative Anarchy/Informal Anarchist Federation (FAI/IRF), an offshoot of Greek environmental terrorist groups, threatened to poison food and beverages made by Nestle, Unilever, Delta Foods, and a named US business in late 2016, leading to mass recalls,” the document notes — although there’s a caveat: “The group probably never intended to poison or adulterate the products, but it was likely aware of the economic, safety, and political implications of making such threats.”

The other two cases cited are, admittedly, a bit more disturbing. “A South African farm worker in early 2017 added 20 liters of gramoxone—a dipyridinium-based herbicide—to a milk storage tank,” according to the document. “While the contamination was detected prior to distribution, the level of gramoxone was likely sufficient to have killed or sickened at least hundreds of people. Separately, a Nigerian man allegedly introduced an unknown poison into the food at a restaurant in Ogoja, Nigeria in late March 2017, killing 2 and sickening 40 others.”

Unnerving stuff. Nonetheless, two random isolated cases in separate countries thousands of miles apart in Africa does not seem like much of a legitimate cause for alarm in the U.S. Yet given the precedent of poisoned candy myths, they may be enough.

One expert, Dr. Joel Best, a criminologist and sociologist at the University of Delaware, has studied 90 cases of so-called “Halloween sadism” spanning decades. Only two could be confirmed and both of these involved family members rather strangers, one of them apparently being an accident. Similarly, Aaron Carroll, a professor of pediatrics at Indiana University and co-author of the book “Don’t Swallow Your Gum! Myths, Half-Truths, and Outright Lies about Your Body and Health” told Live Science that pushers of poisoned Halloween candy myths “are, to some extent, fear-mongering.”

Whether purposefully or not, the Department of Homeland Security is probably doing the same thing.

“When you think about it, the whole concept just doesn’t add up,” Best reportedly said (regarding Halloween sadism myths). “But there’s clearly something that makes people believe in a homicidal maniac who is so crazy that he will poison kids for no reason at all… but only do it on one day of the year.”

Likewise, that same something may make people want to believe in homicidal maniac ISIS sympathizers slipping biological warfare agents into their Cap’n Crunch. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s actually going to happen.

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