In the days and weeks following the September 11 attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., the support that the food industry provided for disaster relief efforts was both immediate and generous. In fact, so many companies have contributed that putting together a comprehensive list of food processors that have supported disaster relief efforts would be almost impossible.
It is estimated that food industry financial and product contributions have totaled in excess of $75 million. Truly, there has been a heartfelt response to this tragedy from our industry, and that response has made a real difference to relief efforts.
Food industry assistance to disaster relief is nothing new or unusual, however. Each year, food companies contribute to relief activities in the wake of floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, and other natural disasters, both here and overseas. Food companies support feeding programs for Americans in need, help fund homeless shelters, and provide financial contributions for numerous assistance programs.
Food companies quickly rise up to the challenges posed by where they are needed; figuring out the best ways to get those products to those who need them; and directing financial contributions to those agencies that can really make a difference. But this time around, food companies also face another, more troubling challenge: the specter of terrorist attacks on the food industry and its products.
In the wake of attacks on New York and Washington, there has been an increased dialogue between the food industry and government on issues related to food security. Food companies and trade associations have been actively involved in information-sharing and fact-finding efforts by government agencies overseeing United States food security.
The food industry regularly meets with the federal regulatory agencies—particularly the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture—to discuss issues related to food safety and food security. Both industry and government have a strong and ongoing interest in new technologies and programs that can provide an even greater level of food security. But as these discussions have taken on a greater urgency in recent weeks, it became clear that a more formal structure for information sharing was needed.
In the month following the attacks, the National Food Processors Association helped coordinate industry information sharing and fact finding. Within 24 hours after September 11, NFPA held the first of a series of teleconferences and meetings with member representatives and key officials with FDA, USDA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Environmental Protection Agency to help them communicate information to food companies and trade associations, as well as to help those agencies get a better understanding of activities being taken by food companies in response to food security needs.
In late September, NFPA held the first meeting of the Alliance for Food Security. The Alliance, which NFPA formed, is made up of more than two dozen food trade groups representing the entire food chain, from suppliers to food processors to retailers. This is the food industry’s effort to coordinate and communicate with federal agencies to ensure that all potential threats to the U.S. food safety system are addressed and minimized. Representatives from the regulatory agencies and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, as well as independent experts on bioterrorism, have met with this group and have provided information on government activities to address various components of food security. The Alliance continues to meet weekly to facilitate information sharing among food companies and with government.
NFPA’s goal is to heighten awareness of food security issues on the part of the food industry, across the board, while at the same time not increasing anxiety on the part of consumers. This is a delicate balance, but it is critical to ensuring prevention, protection, and security of our nation’s food supply.
Ensuring the safety and integrity of food products is—at all times—a primary focus for the food industry. The processed food industry continually examines and reassesses the safety of food products and the integrity of food storage and packaging throughout the production and transportation process. This strong focus on the safety and integrity of food products has long addressed not only issues such as spoilage and contamination, but also intentional tampering.
The food industry has done an outstanding job of determining ways to prevent problems before they occur—including deliberate attempts to compromise product safety. While food companies face new challenges in ensuring the security of our nation’s food supply, it is reassuring to realize that food safety has long been “job one” for our industry—and the result has been an extraordinarily high level of food safety in our country.
by Rhona S. Applebaum is Executive Vice President of Scientific and Regulatory Affairs for the National Food Processors Association, 1350 I St., N.W., Washington, DC 20005.