The skies got a little scarier this week when passengers aboard several Delta flights from Europe found needles in their turkey sandwiches. One man suffered a minor injury, and one of the biggest concerns now is that the needles were somehow infected with HIV (the virus that causes AIDS) or another disease.
According to an Associated Press story,
An investigation has been launched into the company that provided the food, Gate Gourmet, and no follow-up cases have been reported. Many are wondering: Could this be a new front in terrorism?
Fear over malicious AIDS infection has been around for decades, often in the form of the "AIDS Mary" urban legend which told of an attractive woman who seduces a man and gives him AIDS — and those techniques were used in warfare: "Prototypes of the modern legend in the 19th century described a vengeful woman spreading a venereal disease among her country's enemy forces," wrote folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand in his "Encyclopedia of Urban Legends."
Brunvand notes that "AIDS researchers are unanimous in asserting that this specific event never occurred, although certainly some people have tried to give the AIDS virus to others.
In the early 2000s, urban legend stories of AIDS-infected needles circulated widely, prompting the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control to issue a statement:
So far no one knows why the needles were placed in the Delta food. Was it a hoax? A prank? An act of sabotage by a disgruntled Gate Gourmet employee? Or a dry run to test airline security?
Though airlines and the Transportation Safety Administration must treat each threat as serious, an organized terrorist threat is among the least likely explanations. For one thing, the needles were easily detected; out of the six turkey sandwiches that apparently had needles in them, five were discovered before causing injury, and the sixth poked a tiny hole in the passenger's mouth that didn't require medical attention — unnerving though it may be.
Furthermore, putting a pathogen such as HIV on one or more of the needles (especially solid needles, as these are reported to be) is very unlikely to succeed. This is because HIV cannot exist intact for long outside the body; in fact it is rendered inert shortly after contact with air. Thus even if someone got ahold of a quantity of AIDS-infected blood (or even the HIV) and put it on needles (or anything else that might get into another person's bloodstream) to put in airline food, the virus would likely be dead long before the plane took off. Furthermore the flight attendants heated up the sandwiches in ovens before serving them, thus greatly increasing the chance of killing harmful bacteria and viruses.
It would be much easier and more effective to simply poison the food; there are many toxic pastes and sprays that could be surreptitiously used by a food worker intent on doing harm instead of using one-inch needles very likely to be discovered before any damage is done.
Food contamination is scary and a real health threat, but as a mechanism for transmitting AIDS and other diseases, needles in food are an incredibly unlikely weapon.