Globalization and its discontentsLax U.S. drug import regime may offer opening to al-Qaeda

Published 30 January 2009

Repeat incidents of contaminated foreign foods and medicines appear, so far, to reflect a drive to reduce production costs in poorly regulated nations; with the United States exercising but scant scrutiny of imported food and drugs, terrorist leaders could easily identify and exploit this key U.S. vulnerability

There is but little monitoring of the ever-expanding U.S. food and medicine imports, and this inattention could heighten the risk of biological attack by al-Qaeda or other terrorist groups, according to a leading drug-industry watchdog (on al-Qaeda interest in biological weapons, see HS Daily Wire).

Global Security Newswire’s Elaine Grossman writes that over the past two years, reports of tainted ingredients in powdered milk, blood-thinner medication, and pet foods manufactured in China have underscored the risks of globalization for U.S. public health, said Steven Nissen, a Cleveland Clinic cardiologist. Chairman of the hospital’s cardiovascular medicine department, Nissen is said to be in contention to become head of the Food and Drug Administration in the Obama administration. The former president of the American College of Cardiology sounded early alarms about heart attack risks related to the painkillers Vioxx and Celebrex; he also led an effort to block an emerging diabetes drug, Avandia, because of similar concerns.

Nissen told Grossman that, so far, repeat incidents of contaminated foreign foods and medicines appear to reflect a drive to reduce production costs in poorly regulated nations, rather than an intention to harm consumers. The FDA, however, has exerted insufficient control over the quality and content of imported food and drugs, he asserted. Terrorist leaders could easily identify and exploit this key U.S. vulnerability, Nissen said. “If you were al-Qaeda and you wanted to harm Americans, you’re not going to go try to hijack a plane and then fly it into a building again,” Nissen told Global Security Newswire. “But if you could get access to a plant in China that makes pharmaceuticals and put something into those [drugs] that is hard to detect, I believe you could put Americans at great risk.”

Until recently, Nissen has not spoken out about his concerns regarding a terrorist risk to the food and drug supply. “I’m not interested in giving al-Qaeda any ideas,” he said. “But, on the other hand, burying our heads in the sand, as we did before 9/11, isn’t necessarily the right thing to do…. There are certain areas where we are very vulnerable, and I happen to think this is one of them.”

The United States is particularly dependent on foreign nations for foodstuffs, he noted. Eighty percent of seafood and nearly half of the fresh fruits consumed in this country come from abroad. Much of it clears customs based on electronic data provided by the importer, without any U.S. sampling