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No one would have dreamt that less than three months after a hot topic session on bioterrorism was presented at the IFT Annual Meeting last June a smoldering crater would mark where the World Trade Center once stood. Thousands of lives were lost on September 11, and the events of that day forever changed the way we view our nation’s vulnerability.
Craig G. Watz, head of the FBI’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Operations Unit, was on the panel, and his words sound eerily prophetic today: “Our assessment is that the threat of weapons of mass destruction will continue to grow. We’ve got to plan efficiently.”
That planning process today is on high alert. In October, Senators Jon Edwards and Chuck Hagel proposed legislation to strengthen preparations by federal, state, and local governments for responding to terrorist attacks on the air, water, and food supply. “Biological and chemical weapons present a serious threat, yet we are not adequately prepared to protect the American people against them,” they said.
The package represents the most ambitious single piece of law ever introduced for the purpose of protecting the food supply from attack. It would earmark $1.6 billion for improving defensive measures from the federal government down to the community level. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would receive additional funding to improve coordination of treatment and communication of alerts. Additional resources would be devoted to food safety to improve the ability of law enforcement and public health officials to diagnose, contain, and treat animal and plant diseases. Specific allocations would include $100 million for agricultural counterterrorism and $350 million for agricultural and food safety preparedness.
The Senate also opened hearings in October to assess the threat of terrorism to the food supply. During those hearings, food industry representatives outlined their own responses to the threat.
Thousands of companies, distribution sites, warehouses, and retail and foodservice outlets characterize the U.S. food chain from field to kitchen. This diversity makes it tougher for terrorists to achieve massive results through the food supply. With so many checkpoints and quality inspections, and with rapid response and recall procedures firmly established, widespread deadly contamination is difficult—but not impossible.
“Providing adequate funding, renewing emphasis on science, improving coordination between agencies, and continued innovation to enhance and strengthen our current food safety system is the best course,” stated C. Manly Molpus, president of the Grocery Manufacturers of America in his testimony. “In our view, the system is not broken, but it does need nourishment.”
This nourishment comes in the form of additional funding as well as increased vigilance. Meat processors, for instance, have developed a seven-point plan to increase security and enhance food safety. According to a memo the American Meat Institute sent to its members, these steps include review and testing of internal security systems; review of personnel and vendor practices to verify roles and background; examination of the physical environment, including air and water handling systems; examination of chemical and waste handling; review of inspection protocols for incoming raw materials and ingredients; ensurance that product traceability and recovery systems are current and tested; and development of up-to-date comprehensive crisis management plans.
The U.S. food supply already has considerable safeguards, as well as contingencies for terror attacks. “We’ve got to make sure that people understand that they’re safe and that we’re prepared to take care of any contingency, any consequence that develops from any kind of bioterrorism attack,” stated Tommy Thompson, Secretary of Health and Human Services, during a CBS 60 Minutes interview in September. For instance, industry and government groups have developed a Threat Analysis and Critical Control Point (TACCP) program, modeled after the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) concept. It covers physical product, personnel, integrity of raw materials, and an overall crisis management plan, and it forms the basis for individual efforts such as those undertaken by the meat industry.
The unpredictable and extreme nature of terrorism makes total prevention a nearly impossible task. Targets range from contamination on the agricultural, processing, or distribution level, infrastructure disruption or destruction, and even well-timed hoaxes which could damage consumer confidence and take a severe economic toll. The best defense is vigilance, and today that vigilance is reflected in the cooperative efforts of food companies and the myriad government agencies with whom they work to protect the food supply.
by PIERCE HOLLINGSWORTH
President, The Hollingsworth Group, Inc.