Does the President have an official food taster?

July 4, 2008

Dear Cecil:

Does the president have an official food taster to make sure he won't get poisoned? I'm sure that security is tight in the White House kitchen, but you never know. What about when the president visits foreign countries?

Cecil replies:

The golden age of political poisoning (pace the estate of Alexander Litvinenko) has largely come and gone. As various authors on the topic have pointed out, it made for an ideal assassination method in, say, Renaissance Italy: when forensic medicine was nonexistent and food prep (even for the privileged) was unsanitary, it was pretty hard to tell what was murder and what was simply bad shellfish. Back then food tasters were defense against inadvertent poisoning as much as the deliberate kind.

Today's heads of state could be forgiven, though, for thinking poisoning might still be a risk. We know Saddam Hussein, for one, had people on the payroll to sample his chow. (His notorious son Uday apparently incurred his wrath by having a favorite food taster killed.) And arguably Viktor Yushchenko could have used some help during his run for the Ukrainian presidency in 2004; someone slipped him enough dioxin to threaten his life and disfigure him severely. Figureheads seem to have let their guard down a bit — royals in the UK and imperials in Japan have reportedly been eating taster-free for some time now. But anyone with even a finger on the reins of power has to at least consider the possibility that he or she might get poisoned.

Which is why, though there may not be anyone who puts down "presidential food taster" under "occupation" on his 1040, there are definitely mechanisms in place to ensure that the U.S. president doesn't eat anything dangerous. How these mechanisms work in practice, however . . . well, the White House, as one might imagine, plays the topic exceedingly close to the vest, and writers' requests for details (even mine) tend to go unheeded. So we've been left to piece things together as best we can from the occasional news account or memoir.

What seems clear is that when the president eats somewhere other than 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., tasters — in the form of Secret Service agents or military personnel — are likely to be involved. According to a Washington Post article from July 1990, George H.W. Bush ate out at Washington restaurants a lot by presidential standards, about once a month, and when he did he brought along his own condiments, bottled water, and a taster. On at least one occasion the taster was seen to personally wash all of George and Barbara's tableware before use and subsequently monitor its whereabouts, sample the food, supervise its service, and uncork and taste the first couple's wine.

Reports from early in Bill Clinton's first term suggest inconsistent taster use: a March '93 Post account of an impromptu dinner with the Gores at a restaurant in Alexandria, Virginia, has a trio of Secret Service agents scrutinizing the preparation of Clinton's food but not actually trying any. But an "official" food taster (described as a "veteran of three presidencies") turns up in a local paper's feature on a Clinton get-together with Silicon Valley types in Los Gatos, California, a month earlier. And lest you think tasters are deployed only when the president ventures off government turf, a detachment of navy culinary specialists did the tasting (per the New York Times) at a congressional lunch held at the Capitol during George W. Bush's inaugural festivities in 2001. One presumes security has gotten tighter since (a) the 9/11 attacks and (b) the descent of W's approval ratings to depths previously plumbed only by hostage-crisis Jimmy Carter and athlete's foot.

The presidential food safety team's responsibilities go well beyond packing up a squeeze bottle of Horsey Sauce if the POTUS indicates that he's thinking Arby's. In his 2005 book Standing Next to History, former Secret Service agent Joseph Petro — who spent 23 years in the suit and shades — writes, "In principle nothing edible gets near the President unless we know where it comes from and who has handled it." When the president digs in at a state banquet, Petro informs us, he's eating basically the same stuff as everyone else in the room, but his helping has been prepared specially by White House stewards, who suit up to match the other servers at the event and carry his plate out themselves. For events in foreign countries, it's the same thing but more so. Petro writes: "Stewards find out what's being served at the banquet and bring the ingredients with them from the United States."

OK, but try this one. The president (Reagan) is at a baseball game (opening day 1984, Baltimore), and his handlers decide they need a photo op of him eating a hot dog. You're the Secret Service guy. What do you do? According to Petro's account, you do the only thing you can: you pick a vendor at random, order one with mustard, and cross your fingers.

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