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LA Break-In Raises Question: Are Water and Food Supplies Safe?

The FBI is looking into a recent break-in at a construction site in California, where thieves stole several map books that describe the water supply for 22 Bay Area cities, including Oakland and Berkeley, along with a tool used to open water valves, according to Charles Hardy, spokesman for the East Bay Municipal Utility District.

Since September 11, there have been many construction-related thefts, and Hardy does not want to dismiss this as a simple construction-site crime. Although it was the first time that maps of the district have been stolen, the maps are in the public records. ?We don?t want to alarm anyone,? he says, ?nor make them think that the district has been compromised by this theft, because it hasn?t.?

Richmond Police Sgt. Enos Johnson says a district supervisor noticed a broken lock at a water district substation on Sunday. The supervisor discovered that a truck had been broken into and the maps and tool were missing, along with some gasoline. The truck was dusted for fingerprints, but there are no suspects.

Like other utilities throughout the nation, the East Bay district has been working with federal authorities to increase security around the water supply system in the last month. As a result, Hardy says, the FBI is investigating the crime. Andrew Black, an FBI spokesman in San Francisco, says the alleged crime ?appears to be a random act of theft. However, because [the incident] deals with the possible control of water mains, and due to the close proximity in time of the terrorist attacks, we cannot be too cautious.? For more on the LA story, click here.

Congressional investigators say that our nation?s food supply is vulnerable to terrorist attack because of the government?s fragmented inspection system. ?We believe there is reason to doubt our ability to detect and fully respond to an organized bioterrorist attack,? says Robert Robinson of the General Accounting Office.

Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman disagrees that the government safety system was a problem. ?Everybody, whether it?s in government, the private sector or consumers, wants a safe food supply,? she says.

Food inspection programs are divided between the Agriculture Department and the Food and Drug Administration. FDA, which is responsible for safeguarding nearly all foods other than meat and poultry, has 750 inspectors to check 55,000 food plants. USDA has 10 times as many inspectors for 6,000 facilities.

The GAO has pressed Congress for years to consolidate inspection programs into one agency, and the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11 make this even more necessary, according to Robinson.

?Maybe the events of Sept. 11 will give us some impetus to change,? says Senator Richard Durbin, who has long advocated the creation of a single food agency, an idea that was studied but not implemented by the Clinton administration.

Thousands of food processors lack proper security, and few of them test their finished products for contaminants, according to Peter Chalk, a policy analyst with the RAND think tank. He says the Agriculture Department has been left out of the administration?s bioterrorism planning.

USDA and FDA officials say they are coordinating their efforts to prevent or deal with an attack. ?We?re in a new day. We?re facing threats we never thought we would have to be facing,? says Elsa Murano, USDA?s new undersecretary for food safety.

Food could be used to spread a biological agent, says Bernard Schwetz, FDA?s acting principal deputy commissioner. Such an attack would ?reach a large number of people relatively quickly through a means they wouldn?t expect to be a problem.?

?We?ve got a history of working in the areas of product tampering and prevention,? says Gene Grabowski, a spokesman for the Grocery Manufacturers of America. ?We know what the critical control points are.? The group says the FDA needs more money to expand its staff.

There has been only one recorded terrorist attack on the U.S. food supply, in the 1980s when a religious sect contaminated salad bars in Oregon with salmonella bacteria.

For more on the food supply story, click here.

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