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Federal officials fail at attempt to veil botulism report

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NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   WASHINGTON, D.C.   ·   Freedom of Information   ·   July 1, 2005

Federal officials fail at attempt to veil botulism report

  • Federal officials urged the National Academy of Sciences to keep secret a report about the botulism risk to the nation’s milk supply, but the academy published the report Tuesday, citing the importance of informing the public.

July 1, 2005  ·   A report on the dangers of a terrorist-induced botulism outbreak in the nation’s milk supply was published Tuesday after its release was delayed for nearly one month while Department of Health and Human Services officials urged the publisher to keep the information secret.

Stanford University Professors Lawrence Wein and Yifan Liu researched the vulnerability of the nation’s milk supply to botulism, determining that more than 500,000 people could be poisoned if a terrorist put as little as 10 grams of botulinum toxin into a single milk truck. Their research led them to recommend better pasteurization procedures, required compliance with currently voluntary Food and Drug Administration guidelines, and compulsory botulism testing for all milk before delivery.

The National Academy of Sciences was scheduled to publish Wein and Liu’s research in late May, but publication was stalled because officials from the Department of Health and Human Services urged the academy to keep the data secret. In a letter to National Academy President Bruce Alberts, Assistant Secretary Stewart Simonson cited concerns that the research was a “roadmap for terrorists.” After several weeks of discussions between government officials and the academy, the organization decided to publish.

In an editorial about the research, Alberts explained that his organization was concerned about potential misuse of the research, but the data contained in the report could be found through an Internet search. He also justified the report’s publication by citing the benefits of publication.

“Because science advances through the combination of knowledge in unexpected ways, the discoveries of each individual scientist must be made available to a wide variety of other scientists, who can either build upon or criticize them,” Alberts wrote. “This scientific free-for-all in the open literature leads to a refinement of the original findings that will, over time, always make any analysis much more reliable and better understood.”

Alberts also argued that if the research results were made available only to a limited circle of government officials, many people who could greatly benefit from the information would be uninformed.

“I realize there is a tension between, on the one hand releasing or publishing info that could be helpful to terrorists, and on the other hand, educating policy makers to help them make the right decision and educating the public so they can put pressure on the policy makers to make these decisions,” Wein said Wednesday. “But we felt that publishing the paper would make the food supply safer, not less safe.”

Marc Wolfson, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services, said department officials are disappointed that the academy published the research.

“It’s the department’s general feeling that it was the wrong thing to do to publish the article,” he said. “There is a possibility that the consequences of this information being packaged the way it was could result in consequences. It’s HHS that will have to deal with the consequences, not the academy.”

Wolfson said that the botulism research is a classic example of competing interests between the public’s right to know and national security concerns. In response to this problem, the Health and Human Services Department has created a new group, the National Science Advisory Board on Biosecurity. The board, which is comprised mostly of private-sector scientists, will debate these problems and make recommendations on the best ways to serve the public’s right to know while keeping citizens safe.

“They are wrestling with the dual use of research,” Wolfson said. “This is a common problem now — the fact that things that benefit us can also be turned around to harm us.”


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