Please don’t eat the biscuits.
That was the word folks at the University of Montana’s Residence Life office got last week as they sought ways to dispose of more than 500 boxes of survival supplies from 1960s-era fallout shelters on campus.
And it was the message the federal Civil Defense Preparedness Agency sent out 40 years ago to disaster and emergency service officials around the country, which said laboratory tests indicated “a high probability exists that all of the cereal-based rations stored have become rancid … (and) should be destroyed or disposed of.”
Bill Thomas is retired from the Montana Division of Emergency Management and living in Mineral County. He saw Tuesday’s Missoulian story about the survival supplies stacked, ceiling-high, in small storage room atop Aber Hall, and a red flag went up.
“I remember getting a letter from the Civil Defense Preparedness Agency that they sent out nationwide sometime in the '70s saying the crackers were toxic and should not be eaten by humans and were not even to be used for hog feed,” Thomas said.
He contacted the Missoula City-County Health Department with the information Wednesday, and the department’s Alisha Johnson passed it on to Brad Hall, UM’s facilities manager for Residence Life.
Hall was one of several people who took bites of the survival biscuits Monday when the story was being reported. While relatively tasteless, none of the biscuits sampled were rancid, and all samplers were still upright on Friday.
“We’re not giving these away for people to eat,” Hall assured. “We’ll have a waiver that says this stuff is not to be used for consumption.”
At least 30 requests for boxes have been received. Hall, custodial supervisor Harley Lathrop and Susanne Caro, government documents librarian for the UM Mansfield Library, are compiling a list and plan to contact the supplicants to learn of their intent.
“The focus will be on education and museums,” Hall said.
What's left over, he added, will be hauled to the landfill, which is what Civil Defense seemed to suggest in 1976.
Each of the cardboard crates in Aber Hall contains two large tin canisters of saltine cracker-like biscuits that were distributed by the millions to fallout shelters around the nation, chiefly in 1962 and 1963. Missoula County alone had 60 shelters, 18 of them on the UM campus.
“I tell you what, there’s people from all over the country who want some,” Hall said. “One lady from Nebraska said she’ll take them all. A farmer from Malta said he’d take it all if we wanted to give it to him.”
That might not be a good idea.
“The laboratory report indicates that rancid food irritates the stomach and intestinal tract of humans and some animals causing vomiting and/or diarrhea,” said the September 1976 Civil Defense’s Civil Preparedness Circular No. 76-2 that’s posted on the virtual Civil Defense Museum. “However, these cereal-based rations are being used by some animal feed processors who mix ground cereal-based rations with other ingredients into animal feed. Cereal-based rations stored in rusted or otherwise damaged containers are not used by the feed processors.”
Until then, it was recommended that food supplies in fallout shelters remain in place to use as supplements in emergencies.
The same memo said medicines in medical kits provided for fallout shelters had deteriorated badly and should be properly destroyed.