The Town That Was Poisoned/Congressman Weaver

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The Town That Was Poisoned

February 28, 1985 CONGRESSIONAL RECORD - HOUSE

THE TOWN THAT WAS POISONED

The SPEAKER pro tempore. Under a previous order of the House, the gentleman from Oregon [Mr. WEAVER] is recognized for 60 minutes.

Mr. WEAVER. Mr. Speaker, I have a strange and terrifying tale to tell the House. It is about a town that was poisoned. This town has a population of 10,000. When the poison struck, over 700 were taken violently ill. There were, in fact, 715 confirmed cases of poisoning. Another 117 had severe symptoms. Over 45 hospitalized. A pregnant woman and her husband were poisoned; her baby born soon after had the effects of the poison. Fortunately, no one died.

The poisoning was investigated thoroughly by county, State and Federal health authorities. The investigation pointed directly to the food from salad bars in eight restaurants in the town. Another two restaurants without salad bars were implicated, although fewer cases from these two restaurants were reported. The poisoning occurred n two waves in September of 1984, with an astronomical 450 cases reported on the weekend of September 23.

The poison was salmonella typhimurium. The town was The Dalles, OR. To dramatize for you how unusual this outbreak of poisoning was, let me cite some figures:

The Dalles has not had a single case of reported Salmonella poisoning since 1978. Before 1978, only one or two cases a year were reported.

The entire State of Oregon has reported salmonella cases ranging from 250 to 400 a year. The Dalles outbreak had 715.

Figures from the Federal Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, GA, for the entire country for the years 1979, 1980 and 1981 show only one outbreak of Salmonella larger than that in The Dalles, and that of 1,200 cases stemming from pork eaten at a festival in Georgia. The CDC figures include only those outbreaks investigated by the CDC. Most of the outbreaks listed by the CDC run about 20, with the range between 10 and 200. There are an average of 40,000 cases of reported salmonella in the United States each year. The small town of The Dalles had about 2 percent of such cases in 1 year.

Most significant of all – highly significant – The Dalles outbreak did not come from one food source from one site nor did it occur at one time. The sources of The Dalles outbreak were eight salad bars. And the outbreak came in waves.

Salmonella s not easy to catch, like the common cold or flu. It is difficult to pass from one person to another in ordinary encounters. It almost always occurs from eating food that has been contaminated, improperly cooked, or left out of the refrigerator too long. Salmonella feeds on protein and usually occurs in meat, poultry, eggs, fish, milk or cheese. Not green lettuce salad.

Salmonella typhimurium is one of the most common types of salmonella. It can cause typhoid fever in mice. In humans, it is extremely discomforting and can be dangerous (it can kill, but most often does not). Salmonella does not like the acid in our stomachs but it thrives in our intestines where it erupts and causes diarrhea, fever, chills, headache, nausea, vomiting, fainting, hematochezia and abdominal cramps. It is a bacteria that can grow at room temperature but reproduces at a most rapid rate at body temperature.

Let me now relate to you the horror ridden story of the town that was poisoned. The Dalles is the county seat of Wasco County, OR. It is situated on the Columbia River about 60 miles east of Portland. It is a farm town, surrounded by orchards, with wheat and cattle ranches in the dry southern reaches of the county. The big aluminum smelter in The Dalles was recently closed. Directly across the river is the State of Washington. It s a quiet, conservative town.

On September 17, the Wasco County Health Department received a call from a person who complained of gastroenteritis after eating in a popular restaurant in The Dalles. In the next 4 days the local health authorities received at least 20 more complaints involving two restaurants. On September 21, salmonella typhimurium was isolated from a stool sample of one of these restaurant patrons. The resultant publicity in the local news media caused hundreds of others to report their illness. State health investigators were called in and the Federal Center for Disease Control was contacted and asked to participate. A full-scale investigation was on.

The health authorities interviewed and checked the hundreds of people who complained of salmonella symptoms; and they interviewed and checked hundreds who did not. The statistics began to show that those who had eaten at salad bars in eight restaurants were far more likely to have become infected; in fact, the salad bars seemed the only common denominator. Few of those who had not eaten at the salad bars suffered from the illness. With that lead, the Food and Drug Administration investigators and other officials began checking the sources of supply for the salad bars.

They found no common source for any of the food articles on the various salad bars. The lettuce came from different suppliers, as did the other vegetables. The salad dressings were from different wholesalers. Each item was traced back, some even to the growers. The puzzled investigators even checked the kale that was used decoratively on one salad bar. A shipment of cantaloupe from a farm across the river in Washington was suspected but nothing was discovered.

There were no other similar outbreaks of salmonella in other communities either in the vicinity of The Dalles or, for that matter, in all of Oregon or Washington. I think that bears repeating. This huge outbreak of salmonella was isolated in one town, and it had no common food source. Indeed, the outbreak had no common site. It sprang up and then erupted simultaneously from eight different restaurants and from the salad bars of those restaurants.

Even so, both water systems serving The Dalles were thoroughly checked and no evidence of salmonella was found.

The food handlers were suspected. Most of the perplexed health authorities involved in the investigation continue to believe that in some way, somehow – no one knows how – the food handlers were the cause. Almost all of the 325 food handlers employed in the 10 restaurants were interviewed and later interviewed again. About 100 had been infected. The 26 food handlers who showed positive salmonella culture in their stools denied having been ill. I can understand the health officials turning to the food handlers as the source; there s no other place to look. Everything else has been investigated and nothing found.

But the food handlers came down with salmonella poisoning at the same times the patrons of the restaurants did. One or two handlers came down a day or two before patrons became ill in one or two restaurants, but the figures are imprecise. And at one restaurant the patrons became ill before the food handlers.

And no one has been able to discover how all the food handlers got salmonella in the first place. There were food handlers in almost all the restaurants who became ill about the same time. How did all of them happen to get salmonella? They were the victims of the poisoning just like the patrons. They ate at their restaurants, and they were poisoned too.

And why was it only the salad bars which were almost the entire sources of the poisoning?

As an incubator, raw vegetables are not ideal for salmonella. Salmonella feeds on protein. Health authorities can remember only one instance of an epidemic arising from a vegetable, some sewage contaminated celery back in 1974. But records list few other instances not occurring in protein sources. So salad, lettuce salad, would be a most unlikely source for any Salmonella development, certainly not one that poisoned 715 people. Yet no statistical evidence could be found to implicate other foods more commonly associated with salmonella. In one restaurant involved n the first wave 49 patrons of the period September 11 to 15 were interviewed. Seven reported becoming ill within 1 week after they had eaten there. All seven had partaken of the salar [sic] bar; but only 17 of the 42 who denied being ill had eaten salad. And two heads of lettuce from that restaurant were analyzed and no salmonella was found.

Actually there were a number of suggested sources of the salmonella. In one restaurant, people who ate the lettuce were unaffected but the macaroni and potato salads at the salad bar apparently were contaminated. In another restaurant, salmonella was found in the blue cheese dressing, but none in the mix used to make the dressing, pointing to contamination in the rest during preparation; or after preparation. The fruit garnish in one restaurant was associated with the poisoning. And two restaurants which had no salad bars were implicated, though with few confirmed cases.

The first wave of the outbreak occurred on September 10 and 15 percent of the cases emanated from a 3-day period; it was the second wave that was explosive and just like an explosion, it hit hard and was quickly over; but about 600 confirmed cases of salmonella poisoning occurred in that terrifying second wave which began September 21 and ended a few days later.

The epidemic in The Dalles is one of the largest outbreaks of salmonella poisoning in our history for the size of the population in which it occurred. A proportional outbreak in Los Angeles would have 350,000 people ill! If there had been one source, hot dogs at a high school football game, chicken at a big country barbecue, then it would have been explainable though most unusual. But there was not a single source. All evidence pointed to contamination on the premises of the eight restaurants.

But the natural place to find salmonella – poultry, eggs, milk, meat, fish – were never implicated. The interviews of affected persons never traced back to such foods; if food handlers had infected salad bars, why had they not infected the more likely foods? Of course food handlers came down with salmonella in larger numbers than the rest of the population: almost all of them ate in the restaurants they worked in. And they were investigated far more intensely than the general population.

But one startling fact sends all this conjecture spinning.

One restaurant, the Portage Inn (which was one of the first two restaurants implicated) had banquet facilities and frequent large private banquets were given there. These banquets had salad bars all of their own in their private banquet room; the same foods and dressings were provided the banquets as the regular salad bar in the main restaurant. The same food handlers prepared and served the food, including salad bars, for the banquets as for the main restaurant.

But no person who ate at the restaurant only as a banquet patron came down with salmonella.

Let me repeat that. Banquet guests in the private banquet room, eating from a salad bar prepared by the same food handlers who prepared the salad bar in the main restaurant, and serving the same food as the main restaurant salad bar, did not come down with salmonella while patrons of the main restaurant at the same time did come down with salmonella. In large numbers.

If, during the periods of the outbreaks, you had turkey or a ham sandwich, you did not get salmonella. Hundreds of people who ate at the salad bars did. If you had a pizza from Shakey’s or Pietros, you did not get salmonella. But if you ate at their salad bars you had a good chance – dozens did – of coming down with salmonella poisoning. But if you ate at the salad bar in the main restaurant you had a very good chance of severe illness. If you were an employee of one of the implicated restaurants you had a very good chance of getting salmonella infection. But even the health authorities who assumed that the food handlers were the cause could find no evidence of any kind to determine how the food handlers got salmonella in the first place. Except by eating at the salad bars.

Consider the outbreak. Eight salad bars in one small town within a 2-week period were the primary source of 715 confirmed cases of salmonella. Indeed, in the second wave when, within a few days, about 600 people were poisoned. The salad bars accounted – according to the best statistical evidence – for most of the infections. Then consider that there are about 50,000 salad bars in restaurants in the United States according to the National Restaurant Association and none of them have been pinpointed as the cause of any salmonella outbreaks. They all have food handlers just as likely or unlikely to contract and pass on salmonella as the food handlers in The Dalles. But only eight salad bars in the United States – out of those 50,000 – caused one of the largest eruptions of salmonella in our history. All in one small town within a 2-week period.

The Dalles is not in my congressional district but it is a town I particularly like. When I first read of the salmonella outbreak and the investigation it appeared so strange I became most interested. I talked with the health authorities involved in the investigation almost daily. I poured over the statistics as I received them. I analyzed them thoroughly. I rechecked my facts with the authorities. I talked with other people in The Dalles, including several of the restaurant managers. I came to the conclusion that the town had been poisoned.

I have nothing but the highest commendations for the health authorities involved. They were courteous and patient. They were extremely careful and thorough. They never violated confidences and I was given, by them, only statistical data and no names.

Their feeling – that the food handlers are the cause – is understandable. I believe they can point to nothing else. For there is no direct, concrete evidence that the salad bars were deliberately contaminated. It is not [sic] job of the health authorities to postulate answers from circumstantial evidence. Because I believe the crime is so horrendous, and the dangers so great, I believe it is my job to do so.

Let me repeat. There is no direct, concrete evidence of deliberate sabotage of the food in The Dalles. But the circumstances are so overwhelming in pointing to such deliberate contamination that – though I have agonized over the decision – I can only conclude, and very positively conclude, that sabotage did take place.

Is it possible to use salmonella for mass poisoning? It certainly is. Salmonella is quite easy to culture. Under the right conditions it grows quite rapidly. It can be transported easily in liquid. However, culturing salmonella and storing it and determining the proper mix for transporting it would best be done by a medical laboratory with trained lab technicians.

If one wanted to undertake a mass poisoning with salmonella, where would one go? The obvious places, where a customer of a restaurant comes in contact naturally and without suspicion with the food many of the other patrons will eat; the salad bars. A small vial of salmonella culture could be used to sprinkle the liquid in the salad dressings or salad mixes or on the lettuce or other foods on the salad bar as one helped themselves.

Who would do such a terrifying thing? Who would poison a whole town; or at least 715 of its citizens? Whoever did could not have known how many people they would poison, or whether someone might die from the poisoning. But the massive assault on the people of The Dalles was that: a massive assault, almost a war on the town. Who would want to do it? And who would have the capability to do it?

Is there a madman lurking in The Dalles? The poisoning was an insane act, an act of violent hatred, carried on with subtle means. There must be such a person or persons with the motive and ability to assault this town, for it actually happened.

RAJNEESHPURAM

A group of people arrived in Wasco County in 1981. They are the followers of a native of India who calls himself the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. This man has attracted a worldwide following. They bought a 70,000-acre ranch in the southern end of the county, built a town called Rajneeshpuram, and began developing the property. There are now about 2,000 adherents living in the town. They call themselves Rajneeshees.

The relations between the Rajneeshees and the adjoining ranchers has not been very good. There have also been conflicts between the Rajneeshees and the Wasco County authorities over such things as building permits and sanitation facilities. These and other conflicts have caused the establishment of the Rajneeshees to become a statewide issue.

Beginning in early September 1984 the Rajneeshees began recruiting from throughout the United States down and outers who lived on the skid roads of major cities. These street people began showing up, transported in buses by the Rajneeshees, around September 5. On the next day Rajneesh officials announced details of their program to bring 1,000 homeless to Rajneeshpuram. As the street people poured in, other residents of Wasco County became aroused. Among other thngs [sic], they feared that the Rajneeshees would attempt to register and vote the street people in the coming election; possibly even elect county commissioners favorable to the Rajneeshees. Large protest meetings were held in The Dalles and other places. The issue became very hot and heavy, with both Rajneeshees and other Oregon citizens saying some very harsh things about each other.

The person who spoke for the Rajneeshees most frequently was a woman called Ma Anand Sheela, the personal secretary of the Bhagwan. On September 18 press reports quoted Ma Anand Sheela saying to a rally: You tell your Governor, your attorney general and all the bigoted pigs outside that if one person on Rancho Rajneesh is harmed I will have 15 of their heads, and I mean it. You have given me no choice. Even though I am a nonviolent person I will do that.

Ma Anand Sheela has been photographed wearing a holster with a revolver in it.

On the next day, September 19, Ma Anand Sheela was again quoted in newspapers: “Wasco County is so bigoted it deserves to be taken over.”

There were a number of reports of people who threatened to come to Rajneeshpuram with shotguns. But there were no reports of people who actually did. Nor were there reports of any Rajneeshees who were harmed by outsiders. Nor were there any reports of Rajneeshees harming anyone else.

One of the things that first aroused my concern about the Rajneeshees was a statement I saw the Mayor of Rajneeshpuram make on a TV program. He said: “If we are forced to we will take over Oregon. If we are forced to.” Recently the same man, Swami Krishna Deva, was quoted by the Associated Press as saying: “If we need to take arms to battle bigotry, we will.”

The Rajneesh Medical Corporation has a well equipped medical laboratory at Rajneeshpuram.

A final story. This story was told to the Subcommittee on Mining, Forest Management and BPA which I chair at a hearing I conducted in Portland, OR in December 1984. It is related by County Judge William Hulse of Wasco County.

On August 29, a few weeks before the salmonella outbreak, the three county commissioners of Wasco County drove down to Rajneeshpuram to make an inspection. They drove into Rajneeshpuram where they were stopped and asked to continue their inspection in a Rajneesh vehicle. As they got in, Ma Anand Sheela came to the van and said to them: “Snakes should sit in the back seats.”

Judge Hulse continued: When we returned to our car, a tire was flat. The Rajneesshees agreed to fix the tire and as we waited by the car, someone from the Rajneesh medical laboratory bought us out a pitcher of water and three cups. We thanked her and drank the water. The tire was fixed and we drove back to The Dalles. Within about 8 hours I became violently ill, with some sort of stomach and bowel upset. Later I went to the hospital. I was in the hospital 2 days. The doctor said I might have died. Another county commissioner came down with what appeared to be the same thing, though he was not hospitalized. The third commissioner was considered by us to be sympathetic to the Rajneeshees. He did not get sick.”

Mr. Speaker, I conclude my story by calling for an intensive police investigation of the salmonella outbreak in The Dalles.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).