Protecting the nation’s milk supply

by Henry Farrell on June 29, 2005

An interesting story in the “Chronicle”: (link should work for 5 days or so) on the ethics of scientific research. The National Academy of Sciences has decided to publish a paper describing the vulnerability of the nation’s milk supply to terrorist attack (yes, it’s a serious paper), despite a letter from the Department of Health and Human Services saying that publication would provide”a road map for terrorists” and not be “in the interests of the United States.”

bq. In their paper, Mr. Wein and Mr. Liu describe how the milk industry is vulnerable because individual farmers send their product to central processing facilities, thereby allowing milk from many locations to mix. Terrorists could poison the supply by putting botulinum toxin into one of the 5,500-gallon trucks that picks up milk daily at farms or by dropping the toxin into raw-milk silos, which hold roughly 50,000 gallons each. Pasteurization would destroy some but not all of the toxin, and a millionth of a gram of toxin may be enough to kill a person.

The authors’ reasons for making these findings widely known (and the National Academy’s for publishing them) seem legit. There are safeguard measures that could be taken to make this kind of attack more difficult; for instance the simple step of locking milk trucks and tanks. While the government has issued voluntary guidelines recommending that milk suppliers take these precautions, it’s been unwilling to require them by law. In essence then, the government seems to be relying on voluntary compliance and security-through-obscurity, neither of which provide much protection as any system administrator worth his or her salt will tell you. As one of the paper’s authors notes, “Using Google, … it would take you all of 30 seconds to pull up these things.” It doesn’t seem at all unreasonable to raise a public stink about this, in the hope that it will provoke a serious response.



Alex R 06.29.05 at 12:54 pm

HHS essentially gives security reasons for requesting that the paper not be published. It seems pretty clear to me, however, that it’s not so much the public that they are trying to protect, but the dairy industry.

Note that HHS wants “voluntary” (i.e. unregulated) standards — good for the industry, bad for the public. Note also the comment by the U.C. Davis dean: “It’s an issue that the industry is already working on. In fact, these are issues that the industry taught him about. We all knew this was sensitive information, and we should handle it with care.” Translation: we’re working on it, we’re working on it, don’t rush us, and *certainly* don’t go blabbing about our problems and scaring anybody…


abb1 06.29.05 at 1:06 pm

Time to ban Google.


bi 06.29.05 at 3:04 pm

I don’t think Islamic terrorists are going to use this opportunity to wreak havoc. Some other type of crazy goon might decide to throw some insecticide into the milk, though.

Why some people like voluntary “regulation” so much, and think of every little bit of government regulation as “useless bureaucracy”, is anyone’s guess. It’s obvious that the “industry” is dragging its feet: all they need to do is to put some darn locks on the trucks and tanks, and yet they are still at the stage of “working on” it?

Of course, sooner or later some private group is going to step in and do its own policing, then other people can point to the private group as Yet Another Example Of The Triumph Of The Free Market, and we can call it a day.


dglp 06.29.05 at 4:16 pm

It’s disturbing that the DHHS can assert that publication is not in the interests of the US, because, as we all know, the US is hardly a monolithic entity, and publication is plainly in the interest of some sectors. In other words, the DHHS is making a blanket assertion that is itself not in the best interests of the US. This stinks. Something is rotten in


Jake McGuire 06.29.05 at 5:06 pm

Security through obscurity is much less effective in the computer world than in the physical world, where testing a breach can take minutes or hours instead of milliseconds, and the risks of getting caught are much higher.

Has anyone tried to verify the “this can be found in 30 seconds using Google” claim?


Barry Freed 06.29.05 at 6:31 pm

Holy Fucking Shit! You mean to tell me they’re putting fluoride in our milk now?


Is it too late to start a credible rumor that the USSR was working on a weaponized form of bovine spongiform encephalopathy that was given to Saddam/Osama (take your pick) so that this administration and the FDA would actually do something to prevent an outbreak of pandemic proportions of Mad Cow disease?


canadian 06.29.05 at 7:08 pm

Its hard to justify publishing this kind of information. As usual, this site focuses on American concerns and whether a rich country should be forced to upgrade security. But the information is just as useful for terrorists or simply crazies everywhere. I can imagine it creating havoc in a poor country with civil stress.


bi 06.29.05 at 10:46 pm

canadian: remember, if anything bad happens, the victims won’t be the ones on top, the victims will be those common folk who drink milk.


John Quiggin 06.29.05 at 11:19 pm

It took me about 75 seconds to find this quote ‘Terrorists might resort instead to using an agent to contaminate food or beverage supplies, but this method probably wouldn’t inflict mass casualties. Botulinum toxin might be the best candidate for food or beverage contamination, even though it is killed by cooking.”, but the search was longer because there are lots of references to the recent study

I’d guess that a terrorist


Barry Freed 06.30.05 at 2:43 am

I’d guess that a terrorist

Damn! They got Quiggin. The bastards!


John Quiggin 06.30.05 at 4:05 am

Damn! They got Quiggin. The bastards!

… with one bound, JQ was free!

Guessing that a terrorist would Google this at least as quickly as me, I’ve reaffirmed my decades-old policy of avoiding milk.


jet 06.30.05 at 8:40 am

After the DC sniper case, I was sure that a few terrorists, armed with $50K, could make sure that a new rifle and car was used at each site, making it impossible for the FBI/local enforcement to ever stop their murder spree.

In the same vein, going on a tour of a dairy farm would provide a terrorist with every opportunity to empty his vial of botulinum into a container of milk, long before it is placed in a locked/unlocked tanker. He would only have to contaminate a hose fitting or container lid for the damage to be done.

Bush may, especially in light of the WMD’s, have been very wrong about Iraq. But he was absolutely correct in that if a war against terror must be fought, it must be fought on their territory. There is just no decent way to defend our society from well planned acts of terror. I fully expected the US to look like Isreal soon after 9/11, but it never happened. Perhaps the terrorists were too busy in Afghanistan?


Ray 06.30.05 at 9:49 am

I think it was Jim Henley who pointed out how immoral the flypaper theory really is.
The US didn’t invade Iraq to free the Iraqi people. The US invaded Iraq so that it would be Iraqi civilians caught in the crossfire of their war. Freedom on the march.


Uncle Kvetch 06.30.05 at 9:58 am

Pick one, people, and stick with it:

1) We’re in Iraq to help the Iraqis create a stable, prosperous democracy.

2) We’re in Iraq because we need an arena in which to fight “the terrorists”–and better them than us.

You can’t have both.

It’s bad enough that people are batting around no fewer than a half-dozen “reasons” for the invasion and continued occupation of Iraq (now that the original reason has been rendered utterly moot). The fact that a number of those reasons are mutually exclusive is nothing short of maddening.


Steve LaBonne 06.30.05 at 10:08 am

Back to the topic- I would generally err on the side of openness. I believe that secrecy on such matters is likely to hinder those charged with developing and implementing preventive measures more than it hinders potential attackers. The latter are highly motivated to consider, and seek out information (which is always out there somewhere) about, many possible modes of attack, whereas the former may not even advert to a particular area of vulnerability unless there is public discussion of it. Scientists understand that concept, securicrats generally have a very hard time grasping it.


Darren 06.30.05 at 11:47 am


Shouldn’t work be done to produce artificial milk? Apart from getting milk from a bloody, pussy udder (ever wondered why it has to be sterilised?) isn’t it a bit cruel?


jet 06.30.05 at 12:52 pm

Hate to lead this discussion off topic, but Ray and Uncle Kvetch, if you were responding to me then perhaps you somehow misread “Afghanistan” for “Iraq”. Completely understandable since the US has invaded both countries, but most reasonable people recognize keey differences surrounding their arguments for invasion.

Darren, there already is artificial milk (Soy, coconut, etc). The problem is that the dairy lobby makes sure that their $800/per dairy cow subsidy is used to make milk an American staple forever.


Jeremy Osner 06.30.05 at 1:52 pm

Tangientially — does anyone know whether soy milk was originally invented in a search for a cow milk substitute? Seems to me like it would not have been but I don’t know. (And I have no idea whether words for soy milk in various Asian languages are similar to the words for cow milk in those languages.) It’s been made and consumed at least as long as tofu, right?


Ray 06.30.05 at 2:17 pm

Going off topic, I know, but Bush did make a point of saying in his speech that the US was fighting terrorists in Iraq so as not to fight them in the US. But then he’s always been a little confused about the reasons for the invasion.


james 06.30.05 at 2:23 pm

There is a difference between calling attention to a security risk and drawing map with a red arrow labeled “attack here”. Which one is the report closer to?


Steve LaBonne 06.30.05 at 2:34 pm

NAS made a considered judgement that this is the former. Do you have a reasoned argument that they made the wrong call?


rollo 06.30.05 at 11:02 pm

An easier, more certain-to-succeed, and far more thoroughly effective method would be to get the target population to poison themselves, something the botulized milk scenario only hints at. Getting your victims to enthusiastically take themselves out.
This could be done by getting them to accept the necessity of say, burning some kind of fuel that whose exhaust would give off toxic and environmentally-damaging gases. Finding a powerful enough fuel to create an addiction-like syndrome shouldn’t be too hard, and once the process has begun demand should create its own reinforcement mechanisms – vested interests, the necessity of denial etc.
Starting the attack by making the fuel-agent cheap and widely available would almost guarantee success. Encouraging the parallel creation of an industry devoted to utilizing it coupled with an appeal to the basest selfishness, in quantities tied to population growth, would make success inevitable; the timeline necessary making it an act of revenge that, as the proverb says, is best served cold.
We should move now to establish security protocols that will stand against this type of pernicious sabotage, something even uneducated terrorists could come up with, eventually.
I did it in about 3 minutes, without even using Google.


jet 07.01.05 at 10:42 am

This might shed some light on your soymilk questions. Henry Ford is pretty much only remembered for this revolution in auto-production (and intense racism). But what is little known is that he was financed in his early days by the soy empire he’d built.

During the mid-1930s Ford became deeply interested in soymilk. When he informed his first reporter that he was developing a “synthetic milk,” he was greeted with a howl of laughter and disbelief. As part of his ongoing research on soyfoods and industrial soy products he built a demonstration soymilk plant in Greenfield Village and it produced several hundred gallons of soymilk daily.

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