Jelly As a Terrorist Risk

Continued terrorist paranoia causes yet another ridiculous story:

A pile of jelly1 left by a road in Germany caused a major security alert after it was mistaken for toxic waste.

A large area near the town of Halle was cordoned off after a "flabby red, orange and green substance" was found by the road, Reuters reported.

Fire officers in protective suits spent two hours inspecting the substance before concluding it was jelly.

Years ago, someone would have just cleaned up the mess. Today, we call in firemen in HAZMAT suits.

1 "Jelly" in Europe is Jell-O in America. What Americans call "jelly," Europeans call "jam."

Posted on October 10, 2006 at 1:28 PM • 60 Comments

Comments

Gary in DCOctober 10, 2006 2:04 PM

OK, let's complete the pattern:

American Jell-O = European Jelly;
American Jelly = European Jam
American Jam = European ???

(I'm assuming there's nothing that Europeans call "Jell-O").

Mike SchiraldiOctober 10, 2006 2:21 PM

American Jam = European Jam -- they're less precise that way.

A similar chain exists for ketchup/tomato sauce/tomato paste.

cmillsOctober 10, 2006 2:23 PM

Perhaps terrorists can conduct a DOS attack on emergency services by planting piles of jelly all across europe, and then implement the more sinister part of their plan. Just use your imagination to fill in the blanks. Mwah ha ha.

Mike SherwoodOctober 10, 2006 2:40 PM

Nobody seems to be giving these events credit for their benefits. While this turned out to be Jell-O in this case, it could have been much worse. Fortunately, someone sounded the alarm to help the economy. In this case, a job that could have been done through neglect (animals and bugs would have consumed the Jell-O, or rain would have melted it away), or by unskilled labor was transferred to a HazMat technician making a lot more money.

This helps stimulate the economy. The demand for "skilled" technicians to dispose of these threats, or recognize the immediate threat when a person attempts to transport a solid object on an airplane can only help the economy. It creates an opportunity for financial institutions to loan money to unskilled workers so they can attend a school that will teach them how to get one of these critical anti-terrorism jobs.

MichaelOctober 10, 2006 2:56 PM

Thank god there wasn't carrots or pineapple in the jello. The examination could have lasted all day before concluding: rabbit food.

cmillsOctober 10, 2006 3:01 PM

"Fire officers in protective suits" = "HazMat technician" ???

well, I guess, if a shopping cart collector is a *lot engineer*, the posiibilities are endless.

Flabby SubstanceOctober 10, 2006 3:12 PM

Oh great -- now Bill Cosby is going to be put on an international terrorist watch list.

Mike SherwoodOctober 10, 2006 3:18 PM

I thought my post was clearly dripping with sarcasm. A story about a Jell-O based terrorist threat can't be taken seriously, can it?

colloidOctober 10, 2006 3:36 PM

"Thank god there wasn't carrots or pineapple in the jello. "
Once you've crossed the line into "jello salad" I think it actually is toxic...

derfOctober 10, 2006 4:02 PM

@Bryan Feir

We already know Windows is broken. Being shystered into buying Vista and the next version of Office by Microsoft won't help the baker or the cobbler, because that money could definitely be better spent on actual, useful software improvements on preferably existing hardware.

ergOctober 10, 2006 4:20 PM

Isn't this pure Hollywood movie paranoia? All movie toxic waste looks vaguely like jelly, but does any REAL toxic waste actually look like that?

MikeOctober 10, 2006 4:24 PM

I think an "American Jam" is when you are trying to take your favorite rock, manuscript or bottle of water on an airliner and aren't allowed to.

J.D. AbolinsOctober 10, 2006 5:05 PM

What next? A Vegamite and/or Marmite panic?

Just as there were warning signs on some US trains a few years ago about leaving confectioners sugar from powdered donuts on the seats, will we see warnings about secure disposal of food in all public places?

I can see this getting to the point of using DNA analysis of saliva in the food scraps in attempts to trace down the slob miscreant and impose the penalties for "creating a potential dangerous situation".

Frederic MerizenOctober 10, 2006 5:19 PM

Ahm, I just wanted to point out that European != Brittish. The thing was probably "Götterspeise" (aka "Wackelpeter")

Karl E. JorgensenOctober 10, 2006 5:26 PM

Please....

The native language "Europeans" is NOT English. Not even American English. We have lots of different languages over here! German, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, Polish, French, Spanish, Italian, Greek, Basque, Portugese just to name a few. And more in the south-eastern part of Europe that I cannot remember...

The "English" language itself is full of words from the Angles, Saxons, Frisians, Normans, Jutes, Celts with more added on from old norse, french, latin and more - basically: every nationality that bothered to invade the country in the past. And some influences from countries that didn't invade: Greek, Spanish, Arabic and even Albanian...

It's bad enough that you USAians speak weirdly accented english and insist it is "English", blissfully unaware of the origin of the language, but "Europe" is a continent, not a single country!

Phew! I feel better for getting that off my chest. Normal ranting can now be resumed...

Neal LesterOctober 10, 2006 5:40 PM

"Years Ago" means at least a decade before 9-11-01 here in the U.S.A. I don't have numbers but hazardous waste left by the side of the road (by criminals running drug labs or companies wanting to avoid very high disposal costs) is quit common in comparison to terrorism. I would be willing to bet it's common enough to warrant some caution on the part of first responders.

That's what this:

http://www.hazcat.com/PDF/HTS0078Sc.pdf

is for. I believe it was invented after a sugar spill snarled traffic for hours in the bay area (or something like that). I've never used the hazcat kit, but "years ago" I took the training class and it was a hoot.

Davi OttenheimerOctober 10, 2006 6:57 PM

Darn, I was going to post about that one. Beat me to it. I was still puzzling over the end of the story:

"The spillage was traced to a wedding party. The newly-wed groom, who was woken up and informed of the alert, promised to clean up the mess."

Two-hours to ID the substance, but how long to figure out that it was from a wedding party?

This version has a bit more info:

http://news.yahoo.com/s/nm/oukoe_uk_germany_jelly

"the newly wed groom, who was pulled out of bed at noon following a tipoff, confirmed that the jelly, known as Jell-O in the United States, was a party leftover -- and agreed to clean it up"

Pulled out of bed?

John MortonOctober 10, 2006 7:24 PM

This is a sign we're becoming hypersensitive to idiotic terror threat articles. At no point was the T word mentioned in the article.

NathanOctober 10, 2006 7:48 PM

I was a freshman at the University of California Santa Cruz in 1993. As a prank, my friend and I dumped a cup-full of survival marker dye into the fountain in front of the campus dining commons, turning the (recycled) water a brilliant, neon green.

We thought that it was a pretty innocent joke until the next morning when we saw that the entire area had been sealed off and a hazmat team was inspecting the fountain. We found out later that the "cleanup" of our relatively non-toxic substance cost hundreds of dollars.

It's probable that the police suspected that someone had dumped anti-freeze into the fountain, in which case a visit from hazmat would have been entirely appropriate. It seems like the police in Germany were behaving in a similarly cautious fashion. While it is certainly humorous that so much paranoia can be stirred up by Jell-O, I don't think it is out of the realm of the appropriate for the cops to err on the side of caution when presented with a strange substance left in the road.

It doesn't have to do with terrorism; it's far more likely that someone's negligence with a hazardous chemical will result in injury or death than the placing of an improvised explosive dessert by the "terrorists."

John R. CampbellOctober 10, 2006 8:38 PM

I recall that, some years back, there was a tractor-trailer spill of a sh!tload of chocolate syrup in one of the Carolinas.

Rob MayfieldOctober 10, 2006 9:09 PM

I'm just wondering what kind of cheapskate serves Jelly up at a wedding ? It's not surprising it was left over ...

AnonymousOctober 10, 2006 9:39 PM

Jam ( US ) == Jam ( UK )
Jelly ( US ) == Jelly ( UK )

I thought when I moved from the UK to the US that

Jelly ( US ) == Jam ( UK )

This is not true

Jelly is made from fruit juice, where as Jam is contains the fruit.

Jelly is more popular in the US than Jam, though Jam is also readily available.

In the UK the term Jelly also applies in the case of Crab Apple Jelly or Cranberry Jelly.

Jelly is also the generic name for gelatin based deserts. Jell-O is a brand-name for such a product.

Gopi FlahertyOctober 10, 2006 10:17 PM

How much jelly was actually there? I didn't see a mention in the original article.

I actually think this is a reasonable response to, say, 50kg of jello on the side of the road.

People are a lot more likely to dispose of hazardous substances on the side of the road compared with harmless food. You can throw food in the trash easily; you can't just dump hazardous waste.

It's all about context.

BOB!!October 10, 2006 10:31 PM

At least they didn't use the term "suspicious substance" - if I had a dollar for each time an entirely ordinary package or substance was described by the news media as "suspicious" I would be a rich man.

AnonymousOctober 11, 2006 12:57 AM

@Davi: "pulled out of bed" is the English translation of a German metaphor, not to be taken literally. It just means he was still in bed when the police rang the doorbell.

The substance wasn't identified by the hazard crew, but police got information of the wedding and contacted the broom (the one they "tore out of bed") who then identified it as the jelly he had placed there. So basically, a lot of skilled (more or less) people were guessing around for 2 hours without daring to mess with the jelly.

gregOctober 11, 2006 3:10 AM

I don't think this has anything to do with terrorist Risks. This sort of thing happend long before 9/11 (in the EU its 11/9 by the way). It just would have been a funny story in a news paper somewhere. Case in point how much of all this reporting of silly security is produced by our perception that we now do silly security things?

On anyother note. For a capping stunts done in Auckland NZ (not by me). One year some graduates got some 44 gallon drums, painted radation signs on them and filled them with dry ice. Then "crashed" the trailler with them in on the main street. Very funny. Auckland central was evacuated. This was long before 9/11 (11/9). Can anyone say "the cold war"?

In an atempt to duplicate the stunt just a few years ago someone just used the radation signed drums and dumped them in the harbour. As the washed up, there was a little dance from the officals.......But not much and it was resovled in a few hours. This was after 9/11.

MartinOctober 11, 2006 3:30 AM

There was no "terrorist paranoia" involved in the story. Police and Firemen investigated a found that was potentially harmful to the environment. This happens all the time. No terrorism warning was given, not anti-terrorist unit called, noone suspected for terrorism. No newspaper article is claiming that any terrorism was even suspected.

Not every story about a false threat is about a false terrorism threat.

AnonymousOctober 11, 2006 4:00 AM

Certainly a rather odd story. I tried to find some more information about it, but every article has the same information, and is based on the same Reuters report.

Two observations: first, no-one mentioned terrorism, except Dr. Schneier. The Reuters source clearly says it was feared that it was a chemical spill or illegal dumping. (This was what first got me looking for other articles; I wanted to know just how much jello is required before it looks like "dumping" rather than "littering").

Second, like Davi, my skept-o-meter is twitching. I am not going to say the story is definitely a hoax, but I am suspicious. Davi mentioned that several details do not quite make sense. But also, this story is not covered by any other source except those quoting Reuters. So far as I can tell it is not even published by Reuters in their German language articles, and I cannot even find a mention in any other German sources from the area (I am not certain of this, as my German is not very good. Please someone correct me if I am wrong.) Also, Reuters published the story under its "Entertainment" section, not news. Finally, it just happened the other day I was listening to a retired journalist being interviewed on the radio, and he mentioned how a lot of the "bizarre but true" type stories (e.g. hairy baby born in China, burglar breaks into police station, and so on) are actually completely fabricated as space fillers on slow news days. The idea is that becasue the subject matter is amusing but unimportant, no-one will bother to check, and even if they do they will not be too upset. This story was amusing but unimportant until Dr. Schneier linked it to terrorism mania.

moonbiterOctober 11, 2006 6:17 AM

Tracy, "Marmelade" is "jelly" in German. What they found was "Wackelpudding". In this forum (http://www.halleforum.de/viewtopic.php?topic=3390&forum=1) they have a picture of the stuff as well as a link to an article about it in German. Apparently an NBC crew dressed in full gear used explosives detectors, PH-paper, and a photoionization detector to conclude that it was Jell-O.

moonbiterOctober 11, 2006 6:28 AM

P.S., a search on Google for "Halle Wackelpudding" will give you some hits for the original news item in German.

bobOctober 11, 2006 7:10 AM

Boy, times have sure changed in Germany; 30 years ago you would not have had someone just throw trash onto the street in the first place. Maybe he misunderstood "being able to eat off the streets"?

arctanckOctober 11, 2006 7:24 AM

@Karl E. Jorgensen
Well said Karl :)

Could they have initially mistaken the jelly as some alien stuff, or ooh, USO, Unidentified Stationary Object :)

TOMBOTOctober 11, 2006 7:42 AM

I hope I didn't disappoint any pranksters by calling a spade a spade and telling the station staff at the subway this morning that someone had left a water bottle full of urine on the platform, instead of freaking out and imagining the TATP possibilities.

ReaderOctober 11, 2006 11:25 AM

@People asking why this is a story:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/...
"A pile of jelly left by a road in Germany caused a major security alert ..."

http://news.yahoo.com/s/nm/oukoe_uk_germany_jelly headline is
"Leftover jelly triggers German security alert"
Article goes on to say that "... experts wearing chemical warfare suits spent two hours examining the gelatinous substance ..."

Did you read the article? So police in chemical warfare suits is just routine policing?

Mr PondOctober 11, 2006 12:33 PM

While I wish to refrain from being overly flippant, the jelly sold by my local supermarket is eminently worthy of attention from a hazmat team, such is the excruciatingly awful taste...

Klaus von SweetnlowOctober 11, 2006 1:01 PM

Only the Brits speak English much, so the jam/jelly disucssion is a US/UK thing, no? And the UK is not even completely a part of Europe.

Davi OttenheimerOctober 11, 2006 1:09 PM

Looks like there are several translations from German that end up as (British English) jelly:

http://odge.info/index.php?ebene=Search&kw=jelly

Some interesting color/flavor mappings are here:

http://www.boston-baden.com/hazel/Jello/...

And while the picture of the stuff is pretty nasty-looking, I wonder if the response was more a case of the "telephone game" than an immediate security response

http://www.berufsfeuerwehr-halle.de/assets/...

1) A lot of disgusting jelly in the ditch
2) Large amound of gelatin-like substance reported near x
3) Unidentified strange material dumped by high-traffic road
4) Potentially hazardous substance, requiring investigation
5) Security threat...

Five steps might be conservative. That could explain why it took so long to identify the stuff and choose the appropriate course of action (pulling the groom out of bed at noon). I think this also reflects a change in our decision tree for security teams. They are starting to trust people less, are more partisan, or similarly are less well-connected to local events and communities, and thus spend time/money on establishing their own definitive explanations from scratch.

John PhillipsOctober 11, 2006 1:37 PM

@reader, actually it was firemen in Hazmat suits not policemen, so yes, firemen in Hazmat suits are not that uncommon. You will often see them at any posibly hazardous materials crash site or fire as well as at sites of illegal dumping of suspected hazardous materials. Though in this type of situation, the hazardous material is more usually industrial in origin.

It seems that the 'security alert' headline is simply the original press report hyping it, as adding 'security' to the news item is more likely to get it picked up by other news organisation in this overly paranoid time, exactly as has happened here. I.e. either Bruce is having a laugh at our expense or has himself interpreted this as terrorisim from the use of the word security in the headline. Then again reports that would previously have used the phrase 'safety alert or cordon' is nowadays reintepreted or rewritten to the phrase 'security alert' instead.

While the saying, and I paraphrase, 'there is little to fear but fear itself' is not completely a 100% accurate in todays world it is still more accurate with regards to most peoples actual reality than their fears are, at least when it comes to the risks from terrorism to the average person.

another_bruceOctober 11, 2006 2:01 PM

the mysterious names of british desserts: should you call the cops if you find a spotted dick in the road? what about a toad-in-the-hole?

SteveOctober 11, 2006 3:18 PM

In the BBC story I see no reference to terrorists or terrorism. What I see is some public officials taking a cautious approach to an unknown substance that may very well have been toxic.

What do you expect them to do, taste it?

AnonymousOctober 11, 2006 3:54 PM

Ten firemen and two policemen from the local town were involved in the investigation. Only standard equipment from the fire station was used (not "warfare equipment"). The story sounds absurd once you know it was just Jell-O, but I see no reason why Mr. Schneier is suspecting "terrorist paranoia" in this case. Terrorism was never suspected by the local police, not even by the press, just environmental contamination.

A report by the fire department, including pictures of the pudding remains and the equipment used, is available (in German ) at
http://www.berufsfeuerwehr-halle.de/.

Can we get back to more important things now? This story is a dead cow.

AnonymousOctober 11, 2006 4:33 PM

@cmills:

The story is a press-release of the german hacker-club ccc regarding the law-enforcement plans, which would render the use of such tools as like nmap, wireshark (aka ethereal), metasploit, ... illegal, even if they are used by security-companies.

AnonymousOctober 11, 2006 5:46 PM

Totally off-topic, but....

@Klaus von Sweetnlow:
> Only the Brits speak English much, so the jam/jelly disucssion is a US/UK thing, no?

Um, no. English is an official language in 45 different countries, the first language of approximately 400 million people, and an auxiliary language for approximately 1.9 billion people. Most countries using it have their own dialect, but in the majority of those 45 countires it is more similar to British English than American English.

The largest country in which English is AN official language is not the USA, but India. Estimates range from 8 to 15% of India's 1.1 billion people as being English speakers. Indian English is a distinct dialect, but for obvious reasons much more similar to British English than American English.

Chris DaviesOctober 12, 2006 9:06 AM

See, this side of the Atlantic we've had culinary terrorists for years.

No, I'm not talking about the horrors of la cuisine anglais, but the annual christmas pudding bomb scare.

Sadly, it's gone out of fashion with the answering of the Irish question and all, but it supermarket christmas puddings have much the same density as semtex, which leads many airport scanners to highlight your desert as a lethal weapon.

For evidence, see http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/42377.stm

Kevin SmithOctober 12, 2006 10:03 AM

Laughable at first until you realise that with the paranoia existing in the world now, it wouldn't be hard to distract a lot of people and then really do something.

Joel SaxOctober 12, 2006 1:21 PM

First, the issue isn't whether this was laid down by a terrorist or not. The issue is "what the hell is this?"

Firemen are called to deal with an unknown substance in the middle of a road. They put on their Hazmat suits because of that quality. Chances are, they know, that it is nothing. On the other hand, it might be something. It's a wager and if they lose, they're in deep doo-doo. So they overcompensate.

I, for one, know of an instance where a fire department arrived on the scene and found most of the crew hospitalized because of an unlisted hazard at the site. It's not unlike the dilemna faced by policemen: if most shootings occur at routine pullovers, you're going to be on your guard for the most inane of traffic tickets and with good reason.

The nature of what is being transported over the world's highways has changed. Most trucks bear a warning diamond on the back but what are you supposed to do when you just find an unknown something in the middle of the road? You overcompensate. The story seems funny at the backend, but I'm not laughing or calling the firemen fools.

Let's save our ire for confiscated rocks.

John HenryOctober 13, 2006 10:13 AM

So how *should* they have responded to an unknown substance?

Yeah, we all have a laugh later when it turns our to be jelly and we see the over reaction. But, until they know it is harmless, the *only* sensible way to react is as if it is toxic.

If it were like American Jello, wouldn't it have just melted away within a half hour or so? I am surprised they even found it.

John Henry

AnonymousNovember 29, 2006 10:06 AM

assuming that you are a person in authority,if you stumbled on a drum of toxic waste what would you do(decision tree)?

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