Pierce Hollingsworth

Three Hot Topic sessions were presented at the Institute of Food Technologists’ Annual Meeting in New Orleans, La., June 23–27, 2001. This article describes how bioterrorism, research trends, and livestock epidemics such as Mad Cow and Foot-and-Mouth are affecting food technologists and the food industry.

Combating the growing risk of bioterrorism
Grip of Panic Seizes Nation
scream headlines across the nation. A militant group demanding $5 billion in gold from the U.S. Treasury has announced that it deposited time-release canisters containing a deadly, highly resistant, and fast-breeding organism in meat processing plants, water bottling facilities, and retail stores across the country. The government has 48 hr to come up with the gold or the canisters detonate, causing widespread contamination, mass panic, and many deaths.

Hoax or reality, could it really happen here? While the premise of bioterrorism bringing the government to its knees, or worse, killing thousands of people and plunging the country into panic and economic depression, is popular with pulp fiction writers, the actual threat is less ominous. The problem is that there is indeed a risk, especially for small-scale attacks.

The Sunday morning Hot Topic, “Bioterrorism: Is the food industry at risk?” featured representatives from industry, government, and academia drilling into the nature of the bioterrorism threat, and methods to deal with it. Bioterrorism can come in the form of a localized hoax, localized contamination by an individual or small group, large-scale hoax, large-scale acts of contamination, or actual biological warfare, in which toxins are released by weapons or aerial spraying.

“Today the threat is quite small, but it could grow because of advances in technology,” stated Roger G. Breeze, associate administrator, Agricultural Research Service, USDA. He explained that the threat of large-scale bioterrorism is low because of the need for highly virulent pathogens and toxins that hold up to weapons delivery, and the weapons and delivery systems themselves. This would require significant funding from an extensive organization and considerable scientific know-how that could only be possible through state-sponsored bioterrorism.

The largest such organization was constructed by the former Soviet Union. According to a scientist who defected to the U.S. during the end of the Cold War, approximately 10,000 scientists were engaged in offensive “anti-agriculture” biological warfare research. They had two objectives, make biological agents into weapons and create organisms and toxins of ever increasing virulence. “They were looking for virulence genes to grow in the host, as well as ways to avoid vaccines and immune systems,” Breeze said. Ironically, this stealth program was called, “Ecology.” The U.S. curtailed such programs in 1969.

With the break-up of the Soviet Union, many of these scientists who have prepared weapons-grade anthrax and smallpox are displaced and possibly working for Iraq and South Africa, two countries that are actively engaged in offensive biological warfare research. Some also are working for terrorist groups like the one run by Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan.

Hearings in South Africa in 1998 revealed that the apartheid government produced terrorist weapons containing anthrax, salmonella, and cholera. Even small groups such as the Aum Shinrikyo sect in Japan have been able to cook up vats of botulin, the toxin that causes botulism.

Biological warfare or terrorism has one or a combination of three primary objectives: animals through the contamination or destruction of feed, humans through contamination of animals or feed, or humans through direct contamination of food.

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“Today it’s highly unlikely that a foreign source will attack the food supply. The most likely threat is a well-executed hoax,” Breeze said. “The technical barriers for a mass attack are still too great.”

That’s today. Tomorrow many of these technical barriers may be overcome. In any case, even a hoax can cause serious economic damage. The allegation of cyanide in imported grapes a few years ago resulted in the destruction of thousands of metric tons.

To meet this growing challenge both industry and government endorse a policy of Threat Analysis and Critical Control Point (TACCP), modeled after the highly successful Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) concept. The TACCP model includes a crisis plan that covers physical product, personnel, integrity of raw materials, and an overall crisis management plan.

Battling the bioterrorism threat also has created technology of its own. The Rugged Advanced Pathogen Identification Device (RAPID) was developed by the Defense Department to field test potential biological threats. The self-contained unit includes a computer, uplink to the Internet, and testing unit–all housed in a rugged attaché-sized case. Researchers evaluate the data remotely and in real-time.

Systems like this are relatively new, but finding their way into the private sector as contingency systems within TACCP and as a means to assess and control non-intentional biological threats like Foot-and-Mouth disease.

The lead agency in combating bioterrorism is the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), through its Weapons of Mass Destruction operations unit, established in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing on April 19, 1995. While the FBI considers bombs and bullets to be the biggest threat, bioterrorism is a growing priority and it considers actual terrorism and hoaxes in the same light.

“We don’t like the word hoax,” stated Craig G. Watz, Supervisory Special Agent for the unit. “It trivializes the act and we don’t consider it that way. We call such acts non-credible threats, not hoaxes.”

He stressed that the FBI works in concert with industry and other federal agencies during the process of discovery, investigation, and response. “The determination of whether it’s terrorism is made by law enforcement. If you suspect something unusual, call 911. They’ll get our local bureau involved.”

Almost immediately upon notification, the FBI assembles a conference call with relevant agencies to determine behavioral, operational, and technical threats and needed responses. This leads to a determination of the threat level and nature and composition of the response team.

The FBI also is backing additional legislation that would make it unlawful to possess a biological agent, communicate false information about a biological agent (a hoax), and impose the death penalty for inflicting death as a result of bioterrorism.

While the number of bioterrorist acts is small, and on a small scale, the FBI follows up on approximately 250 reports a year, according to Watz.

Each is taken seriously because just one botched response could be catastrophic. According to Leeanne Jackson, Health Science Policy Advisor, Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, Food and Drug Administration (FDA), “The food supply is an obvious target for terrorists. It’s a complex delivery system that affords many opportunities. Compounding the threat is the international nature of the marketplace.”

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Like the FBI, the FDA is aggressively upgrading its prevention and response systems, generally following a TACCP model. Current efforts include extension of analytical methods and surveillance, prevention, and detection incident response, informational databases, increased inter-agency collaboration, development of rapid-response methods, and improved testing technology.

Procedurally, many TACCP procedures were developed by the Air Force to combat bioterrorism at its Mid East bases. “The problem was that we had no institutional process to prevent contamination of food and water,” stated Scott W. Brooks, former director of the Air Force project and now Senior Manager, Food Safety and Operations Compliance for Taco Bell in Irvine, Calif.

The work done by the Air Force in collaboration with Battelle Memorial Institute has led to major improvements in TACCP throughout the armed services and is being used in the private sector as well. “Ours is a prevention rather than reaction emphasis,” he said.

In addition to outside threats, the U.S. also faces internal threats from terrorist groups opposed to genetic and animal research. Hand in glove with bioterrorism are propaganda campaigns designed to spread misinformation, stated Gleyn E. Bledsoe, dean for agricultural extension for Northwest Indian College and soon to be moving to Washington State University. The Internet has become a highly effective means to disseminate such information, aimed at hurting corporate sales and university programs, he said. “It’s cheap, hard to detect, offers no early warning and is low in cost to human life,” he said.

Also appearing on the panel was Roger C. Viadero, Inspector General of the Agriculture Department. He stressed that “There are enough naturally occurring issues (of food contamination). We need to focus on non-intentional cases.” He cited numerous cases of individual negligence, lax enforcement of food safety regulations, and individual criminal acts of agricultural smuggling–each carrying potentially fatal or economically damaging consequences.

All agreed that while the threat of large-scale bioterrorism is slim today, technology and global political instability are increasing the risk. Through the TACCP model, industry and government can minimize this risk through the complex food chain.

“Our assessment is that the threat of weapons of mass destruction will continue to grow. We’ve got to plan efficiently,” cautioned Watz.

Food industry copes with “research-lite”
One of the nagging ironies of the food industry is that it commands a consistent 15% of U.S. GDP, far greater than any other industrial segment, while investing a paltry 1% of sales in research and development. That compares to an average of 20% for biotechnology, 12% for pharmaceuticals, and 4% for chemicals. Only petroleum and paper fall behind food among major industrial segments—and not by much. Moreover, the food industry has an extraordinarily high historical failure rate for new products—in excess of nine of every 10 launches are pulled within two years.

“We find ourselves living in an age where R&D budgets are under the financial microscope. Firms are redefining the metrics of R&D success and competitive advantage,” stated Monday’s Hot Topic moderator John H. Hanlin, Director of Product Development, McCormick & Co. as he opened “What Happened to the ‘R’ in R&D?”

The cause for this ongoing redefinition is rooted in factors ranging from low inflationary rates to highly competitive, mature markets. But rather than disappearing, the ‘R’ has diffused, to beefed up university research parks, and graduate labs, as well as suppliers, vendors, and even government labs such as those run by the Agricultural Research Service of the Dept. of Agriculture. While each has a long historical role in the food matrix, their importance in providing proprietary basic and applied research is growing.

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“Ours is a slow growth industry,” stated David C. Macnair, Vice President for Global R&D and QA and Chief Technical Officer, Campbell Soup Co. “We have very little price flexibility. In some segments we even have deflationary pressure. While new products bring benefits, they’re expensive,” he stated.

The consequences of these pressures include a marketplace in which food companies are stressing cost containment through supply chain and P&L efficiency, mergers and acquisitions versus internal expansion, fewer truly new products and many more line extensions, and a trend to restore marketing dollars to build existing brand strength. “We’re reevaluating the roles of internal R&D and placing an increased dependence on suppliers and vendors to gain access to technology in this specialized world,” Macnair stressed.

This leaves food companies to concentrate on their primary objective—brand marketing rather than vertically integrated food processing. “In today’s marketplace, we’re poorly equipped to apply early stage technologies. We must become more focused on core competencies,” Macnair said. “But this is not necessarily a bleak picture. Food research is not vanishing, but who is doing it and how you access it is certainly changing. It just depends on what you do about it.”

For its part Campbell has initiated working partnerships with both suppliers and academia to add value to its core brands. The introduction of aseptic plastic bottles for European soups developed with cooperation from packaging suppliers and a science-based marketing campaign for “tomato goodness” developed in conjunction with the medical community and academia are just two examples.

This more diffused research framework demands a new management mindset, in which cooperation and communication are key. “We (as an industry) have wasted a staggering amount of corporate dollars to develop technologies that no one needs and used them as platforms to make new products that failed to impress consumers,” stressed Hamed Faridi, Vice President, Research and Development, McCormick & Co.

Outsourcing basic research minimizes the risk that new technology will be pushed through to the marketplace purely on the momentum of a large internal  research investment. In effect, the process is reversed—from reading consumer wants and demands, to a product concept, to development priorities, to the basic research required to support the product initiative.

“The best definition of innovation that I have heard is ‘a change that adds value.’ In the food industry today and tomorrow, I believe it is translated to technical problem solving,” stated Faridi. “The ‘R’ within the organization should serve as a conduit to bring the external know-how to the organization especially to the product development groups.”

These changes within the food industry R&D framework have created new priorities and opportunities for universities. Purdue University, for instance, has experienced significant expansion of its proprietary work with food processors. “Academia is where a lot of the ‘R’ has gone,” asserted Connie M. Weaver, Professor of Foods and Nutrition and Dept. Head, Dept. of Foods and Nutrition, Purdue Univ. “The industry goal is profit, for academia it’s discovery of important science. But the industry goal is enhanced by good research and that’s where we can work best together.”

She stressed the importance of long term relationships and open sharing of information based on clear upfront working agreements.

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For its part, the federal government applies most of its food and agriculture research budget to the latter half of the equation, according to Damanna Ramkishan Rao, National Program Leader, Food Science and Technology, USDA. “The food industry gets no direct federal R&D funding. There is something missing here when you compare it to missile defense.”

He cited three priorities that may create funding opportunities: value added agricultural commodities, functional foods, and exports.

In the midst of these paradigm changes in research roles and relationships between industry, academia and government is the Institute of Food Technologists. It is increasingly involved as mediator, motivator, and facilitator for communication and program development, according to David S. Reid, Professor, Food Science and Technology, Univ. of California at Davis, and Chair of the IFT Task Force on Research Enhancement. “Our charge is to develop new and creative strategies for increased funding to enhance food related research efforts,” he said.

The big R may be gone from today’s food company infrastructure – but it lives on, perhaps healthier, in the increasingly networked, integrated R world of research partnerships and affiliations.

The session was co-moderated by G. Curtis Busk, Jr., Principal, Bj&C, Inc., Wimberley, Texas.

Global livestock epidemics threaten U.S. food supply
The dual demons of the Mad Cow and Foot and Mouth diseases have decimated global livestock herds and created a crisis in public health confidence throughout Europe. Despite Herculean efforts by governments throughout the European Union, both scourges seem to evade all efforts to control their spread. To date, the USDA has declared domestic agriculture free of the twin plagues, but the rising concern among many researchers was reflected in the Hot Topic session, “Mad Cow and Foot and Mouth: Can we cope with these threats in a globalized food environment?” held Tuesday morning.

While the two diseases are not epidemiological relatives, their rampant spread and resulting news pictures of mass animal carcass burnings have cemented them together in the public mind.

Of the two, Mad Cow, or Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), poses the greater risk to human health and is the focus of more intense debate over U.S. vulnerability. Mad Cow is a type of Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathy (TSE) found in several species of both domestic livestock and wild animals. The disease is so named because when brain tissue from dead cattle is viewed under a microscope, many of the normal brain nerve cells have developed numerous tiny holes and a meshwork of delicate fibers. Before death, the afflicted animals become apprehensive, abnormally excited, and uncoordinated. Their mental state deteriorates to a point where they become hard to handle, or “mad,” before they die.

Ingestion of contaminated beef and bovine byproducts can lead to new-variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (nvCJD) in humans. Virtually indestructible mutant proteins, known as prions, cause this fatal disease. Since these proteins are not living organisms, they’re virtually immune to conventional processing and to date they have no known cure. Prions can withstand temperatures up to 1,100° F, and they can easily move from one species to another, evade immune systems and replicate themselves by affecting surrounding, normal proteins. The most prevalent means of transmission from animal to animal is through ground up animals or powdered animal blood, both common forms of commercial animal feed and filler.

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Concern is rooted in the fact that European feed producers, particularly in Great Britain where the initial outbreak of BSE was most severe, shipped potentially tainted product all over the globe. Millions of tons went into Asia alone and some may have found its way into the U.S. Because BSE has a long incubation period, roughly five years, seemingly healthy beef cattle that are slaughtered at age two to three may be carriers, stated Hot Topic panelist Michael Hansen, research associate for the Consumer Policy Institute of Consumers Union, publishers of Consumer Reports magazine.

The problem is compounded by the current lack of reliable live animal testing, according to William L. Brown, president of ABC Research Corp., one of the companies developing such technology. “Testing is going to be one of the key elements of prevention,” he stressed. “But today we have no practical test for live cattle.”

The U.S. is the largest beef producer in the world, with 100 million head, and the second largest per capita beef-consuming nation, just behind Argentina. Thus, even the perception of a problem could create an economic crisis.

Both the FDA and the USDA have taken steps to make sure this and any resulting human health crisis don’t occur. “We have seen no evidence of BSE or scrapie in the U.S. to date and we will continue with a conservative approach,” stated Thomas M. Gomez, the lead epidemiologist for the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, USDA, based at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. Scrapie is a prion-based TSE found in sheep, believed to have triggered the British Mad Cow epidemic. He cited monitoring programs, feed restrictions, and import regulations as means by which the government has prevented an outbreak in the U.S.

In addition, FDA is stepping up efforts to find faster, more reliable detection methods in animals and in raw and finished food products, according to Robert E. Brackett, director of Food Safety, FDA Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. “Communication has been extremely important,” he stressed. “This includes interagency coordination, public hearings, increased record keeping, additional research. Our job is to maintain public confidence in their food supply.”

Brackett also stated that government responses to potential disease threats should not come as a surprise to industry. Thus, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association has been working closely with government to shape policies that prevent without panic since the 1980s when BSE first hit Europe. “We’ve never had a confirmed case of BSE in the U.S.,” stated NCBA chief executive officer Chuck Schroeder. “But are we doing enough? I believe we are through a careful risk management approach. If we go too far, we sap time and money from perhaps more serious public health risks.”

Schroeder stressed that public perception has a profound impact on his industry—whether based on fact or media-driven emotion. “A thing believed to be real is real in its consequences,” he said. “More people say they know about these diseases than know the name of the vice president. Yet public confidence is a very high 85%.”

He pointed to increasing per-capita beef consumption in the U.S. in the wake of a 20-year decline as clear evidence of strong consumer acceptance of current prevention and food safety efforts. “This is a tough environment for risk communication. These are complex issues and there’s a lot we still don’t know. Plus, we’re faced with a lot of activist misinformation campaigns.”

To help cut through the clutter, NCBA conducts hundreds of media interviews and distributes press releases and brochures. It also has two informational web sites designed for consumers: www.bseinfo.org and www.fmd.org.

Despite the misinformation campaigns, nagging questions from reputable sources remain.

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In addition to the question of pre-ban animal feed, several studies indicate the presence of prion-linked diseases in the U.S. While not Mad Cow disease, Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD), a similar condition that affects elk and deer, is widespread in parts of the Southwest, and scrapie is present in sheep in 45 states, according to Hansen. In addition, he cited research studies that indicate horizontal transmission from one species to another. Thus, while ground cattle remains may be banned for ruminant feed use, it may be fed to chickens. Fermented chicken manure may then be fed back to cattle.

To illustrate this possibility, Hansen cited research by Richard Marsh, a TSE specialist at the University of Wisconsin. He investigated a mysterious outbreak of Transmissible Mink Encephalopathy (TME) in that state and found that the minks’ diet consisted of ground “downer” cows—animals too sick to stand. His research showed that when the brains of infected cattle were fed to healthy mink, they developed TME. When healthy cattle were then inoculated with tissues from these TME mink, they developed BSE of a different strain than found in the British outbreak. The animals simply collapsed rather than exhibiting overt Mad Cow symptoms.

Hansen also cited studies conducted at the University of Pittsburgh and Yale University in which autopsies of elderly persons diagnosed with advanced Alzheimer’s or dementia showed that 5.5% and 13% respectively actually had CJD. Extrapolated to the entire two million cases of Alzheimer’s currently in the U.S., this represents a troubling prospect, Hansen warned.

He called for more aggressive research and government steps to eliminate all feed exemptions for feed containing ground animals and more extensive, long-term record keeping by feed and cattle producers. In addition, he called on the USDA to raise its surveillance level from the current 1,000 animals per year.

Foot and Mouth disease is not an overt threat to humans, but has a significantly higher risk of decimating livestock herds because it is highly contagious. According to USDA’s Gomez, seven types and 60 subtypes compound prevention and tracking. “If one in the herd gets it, they’ll all get it,” he warned.

It is an aerosol virus that can be spread by wind, direct contact, and “fomites,” which are inanimate objects such as boots, shoes, and tires. 

North America has not experienced an outbreak since 1929. In 1996, a National Animal Health Emergency Management System was put in place to strengthen prevention and surveillance efforts. At risk is $6.4 billion in U.S. animals, according to Gomez. Guarding against this risk are the combined efforts of industry, USDA, FDA, Customs Service, Centers for Disease Control, National Institutes of Health, and the Agricultural Research Service. More information about government efforts is available at www.aphis.usda.gov/oa/fmd/index.html.

At present, North America seems like an oasis in a world of raging livestock epidemics. The task of keeping it that way is formidable. More than 1.3 million passengers, for instance, pass into and out of the U.S. every day. Just one passenger wearing contaminated shoes could be like a smoldering match in a tinder dry forest. 

“Vigilance is the key,” concluded session moderator Fred Wolfe, Professor and head of the Nutrition Sciences Dept. at the Univ. of Arizona. And so it must be with so much at stake.

by Pierce Hollingsworth,
Contributing Editor
The author is President, The Hollingsworth Group, P.O. Box 300, Wheaton, IL 60189.