Biocrime: Lessons Learned Contribute to Future Cases

By Chris Healey

Three individuals associated with Peanut Corp. of America are going to court over charges  related to intentionally shipping tainted peanuts. Those charges come after nine people died and 714 people were infected with Salmonella typhimurium after consuming peanut products shipped from the company.

Most cases of food contamination are not prosecuted, but the Justice Department alleges the individuals involved knew the peanuts were tainted and shipped their product anyway to avoid lost revenue.

Their case is considered a biocrime, a distinct offense unrelated to a more common term – bioterrorism. Biocrime involves the use of a biological agent to kill or sicken one or more individuals for revenge or monetary gain. Bioterrorism, however, is the use of biological agents to create casualties, terror, societal disruption, or economic loss inspired by ideological, religious or political beliefs. Biocrime is personal; bioterrorism is theater.

A notable, unsolved biocrime took place October 1996 at a large medical center in Texas. 12 laboratory workers became ill after eating muffins and doughnuts tainted with Shigella dysenteriae, which has been anonymously left in a break room between the night and morning shift. All 12 had consumed muffins, and stool isolates from nine of the victims were identical to Shigella dysenteriae retrieved from an uneaten muffin in the break room. Bacterial isolates from stool samples and the uneaten muffin were identical to a partially-missing laboratory stockpile of the same pathogen.

Biocrime is an attractive avenue for criminals with biological agent knowhow. Toxins and pathogens are indirect and stealthy. Pathogens must pass an incubation period—the time between introduction of the pathogen into the body and the onset of symptoms. During that time, criminals can escape and distance themselves from victims to avoid discovery.

Determining if an infection is the result of biocrime is extremely difficult. Many agents which can be used criminally, can also occur naturally. Biocrime identification depends on astute epidemiologic investigation and successful communication between scientific and law enforcement officials.

The advent of molecular biology in the late 20th century birthed the field of microbial forensics—assisting criminal investigations involving microbial organisms. However, it wasn’t until the anthrax letter attacks of 2001 that investigative short comings, such as inadequate methods of identifying agent sources based on genetic mutations, were addressed.

The anthrax letter attack investigation was a turning point in microbial forensics. It served as a proverbial rough draft that established a template for future biocrime and bioterrorism investigations. The justice system demonstrated it could wield biological science as an investigative tool and apply that knowledge toward identifying and prosecuting perpetrators.


Image Credit: Bhaskaranaidu

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