Ed Finkel

“Expect the Unexpected: Failure to Anticipate Threats Is a Critical Food Safety Risk.” Panelists
“Expect the Unexpected: Failure to Anticipate Threats Is a Critical Food Safety Risk.” Panelists

From ransomware shutdowns of meatpacking plants to fraudulent attempts to sell fake organic grains to a global pandemic that scrambled the supply chain, food scientists and the companies for which they work need to be able to anticipate food safety risks and have plans in place to mitigate them, according to panelists at a featured session at IFT FIRST on Tuesday, titled “Expect the Unexpected: Failure to Anticipate Threats Is a Critical Food Safety Risk.”

“Events are coming at you from a lot of different angles. The test is, how well is your organization learning?” said Jeff Varcoe, PhD, vice president, quality assurance & food safety at J.M. Smucker Co. “You used to say, ‘That can’t be. That’ll never happen.’ Guess what, it does. If it hasn’t, it will. You have to identify critical risks and be creative in how you approach them.”

Doing so requires constant networking, ranging from physical trade shows like IFT FIRST to digitized plant floors and supply webs, Varcoe said. “Some components coming into food products may be touched a half-dozen times before they get to your dock,” he said. “How do you know it was stored frozen? How do you know it was in a secured trailer? How do you know someone didn’t knowingly tamper with it? … How does AI tie into this? We’re data-rich in most cases, but it’s data, and sometimes it isn’t easy to access, let alone do trending [analyses].”

A plethora of databases about incidents of food adulteration can help you think about your potential vulnerabilities and put a mitigation plan in place, said Rolando Gonzalez, PhD, chief science officer at The Acheson Group. “What are we going to do about it? How are we going to be proactive? And then let’s not forget the training of people,” he said. “Choose a known contaminant, go through simulation, and be proactive. You learn a lot from that. Set your mentality as if you were one of those perpetrators. Then take action.”

Companies need to think through their crisis management systems and be able to know how they would proceed under various scenarios, said Trish Tolbert, North America director of food safety and sanitation at McCain Foods. “How quickly do certain people need to be notified? Who is the ultimate decision maker?” she said. Who should handle the media—and regulators?

When sourcing ingredients, Tolbert counseled researching their origins and the backstory of the supplier with which your company plans to work. “Which ones are high-risk?” she said. “Do you know the supplier well? Is it difficult to get information from them? Have they had incidents in the past? … Also, do you need 12 strawberry flavors? That increases your complexity” and thus range of vulnerability.

Companies need to move from a reactive to a proactive mindset, in much the same way they did when the Food Safety and Modernization Act passed in 2011, realizing that in addition to committing food fraud for financial gain, there are bad actors that intentionally poison food, said Jennifer van de Ligt, PhD, senior consultant at ToxStrategies. “People would do that? Yes, people do that,” she said. Combating such risks requires “understanding those areas that are critical in your facility, where you have the biggest risk for potential adulterants to be added in your system.”

Another avenue where food safety can become compromised is through cyber warfare, which is sometimes perpetrated by nation-states, van de Ligt said. “Just like in [physical] food safety, you wash hands and have good safety hygiene, I encourage all of you to go home and learn about cyber hygiene,” she said. When information technology staff remind you to change your passwords, listen to them rather than becoming cranky about it. And be aware that ransomware attacks usually come through phishing e-mails. “As scientists, be skeptical,” van de Ligt said. “If you see something that doesn’t look right, don’t click on that button.”

In This Article

  1. Food Safety and Defense
  2. FSMA

About the Author

Ed Finkel is a freelance journalist based in Evanston, Ill. ([email protected]).

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