by Jason Wright / Appen Newspapers
January 13, 2009 MILTON – In olden days, royalty had what they called food tasters, a seemingly thankless and terrible job whereby someone would taste the lord's food – at considerable personal risk – to stave off the very real threat of poisoning.
Though the availability of poison has not have changed, the methods by which it is detected certainly have. And that's where Councilman Alan Tart comes in.
No, he not really the president's food taster. But close.
Tart, a regional retail food specialist with the FDA since 1999, is part of a specialized, 15-member team that steps in during "high security" events or disasters. It has been called upon for the G-8 summit, hurricanes Katrina, Gustav and Rita, the Republican and Democratic national conventions and Sept. 11.
Tart said the Secret Service and FBI will contact the FDA and request the team if they believe food security may be an issue. The official inauguration of the President of the United States of America Jan. 20 fall into that category.
"Food defense has been a major issue for us," said Tart, who will leave Jan. 15 and return a week later. "It has been identified as a major weakness in our fight against terrorism."
But it's just food, right? Wrong, says Tart. The chances of something catastrophic occurring are great in a week where there will be more than 20 inaugural balls, all with extensive menus.
To make sure everything goes smoothly, the team exhaustively reviews all menus, the types of food served, the sources supplying the food and the transportation, distribution and secure preparation of all meals.
Because of the volume of food needed for the crush of people coming to Washington for the historic event, the group must also inspect all refrigeration trucks and off-site facilities. That's not to mention the normal food preparation problems of proper cooking, storage and serving.
"You don't notice all this stuff until you really start looking," said Tart. "Any food served to a dignitary, especially the president, is sampled. After the sample is taken it is held in containment in case of an outbreak."
And lest the effort seem a bit much, Tart relayed the tale of some very real food terrorism.
In The Dalles, Ore. in 1984, the members of the radical Rajneeshee cult contaminated water and the salad bars of 10 local restaurants with salmonella, causing 751 cases of illness. They did it to sway the Wasco County elections, hoping that people would be so sick they couldn't outvote the cult's own candidates. Luckily, it didn't work, and no one died from the attacks.
"It can definitely be done," said Tart.