Bioterrorism25 years to Oregon salmonella bioterrorism

Published 7 October 2009

The 1984 Oregon outbreak of Salmonella enterica Typhimurium sickened 751 people and sent 45 to hospitals; the attack was launched by a mystical cult which tried to take over the remote Oregon county

For the first twelve years, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) could not write about it. After fifteen years, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was still identifying the six motivational factors that were involved: charismatic leadership, no outside constituency, apocalyptic ideology, loner or splinter group, sense of paranoia and grandiosity, and defensive aggression.

This month marks the 25th anniversary of the foodborne bioterrorism attack on The Dalles, Oregon by top followers of cult leader Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh.  Far more people know about it now than did at the time.

In 1984 and for years afterward, nobody outside Oregon paid much attention to it. Food Safety News’s Dan Flynn writes that since envelopes of anthrax were sent to media outlets and the U.S. Senate, bioterrorism has received much more attention throughout the United States. While the 2001 anthrax attack remains a mystery, everything was solved involving the 1984 Oregon outbreak of Salmonella enterica Typhimurium that sickened 751 people and sent 45 to hospitals.

It was the largest foodborne illness outbreak in the United States in 1984.  Now there is interest because the group involved cultured its own pathogen for terrorist purposes.

Jim Weaver was the local Congressman when people in The Dalles got sick.  He would rise on the floor of the U.S. House just four months later to charge the Rajneesh with sprinkling Salmonella on the salad bar ingredients in eight restaurants.

Rep. Weaver’s remarks ran counter to the CDC investigation, which blamed unsanitary food handlers for the outbreak. Writing recently in The Oregonian, Weaver recalled: “I received daily printouts from the CDC investigation that made it only too clear that it was virtually impossible for the food handlers to be the source. For example, in one restaurant, the same food handlers set up salad bars in a private banquet room and in the main public dining room. Dozens of salmonella cases issued from the salad bar in the public dining room; none from the salad bar in the private banquet room.  Yet the health authorities remained unanimous in blaming flood handlers.”

The food handlers would have to wait a few more months to have their names cleared.

Flynn writes that American Type Culture Collection in Seattle had sold the bacterium to the Rajneesh. Among the hands that sprinkled droplets of Salmonella from vials hidden under their red robes was that of Ma Anand Sheela, the Bhagwan’s top lieutenant.

Three years earlier, the self-described Indian mystic