Michael Reckowsky

The importance of protecting our food supply from natural and intentional microbiological, chemical, and physical contamination is acknowledged throughout the food industry. Members of academia, government, and industry have dedicated much time throughout the past decades to the development of food safety programs on the farm, in the processing plant, and in consumers’ homes. Naturally occurring foodborne pathogens continue to be an industry nemesis, but programs developed have significantly reduced the number of outbreaks.

In light of the events of September 11, 2001, however, the need to develop complementary programs relating to biosecurity has become a new focus. Will procedures already in place to address the unintentional cases of contamination be appropriate in a case of deliberate food product tampering?

It is the responsibility of the food industry to diligently address the visible threat of food bioterrorism, but the ability to test the effectiveness of these preventive and reactive procedures to an act of bioterrorism remains a challenge. Role playing and simulation can help us assess the value of these programs.

On May 4, 2004, Purdue University’s Dept. of Food Science held the nation’s first biosecurity simulation for food companies. Forty representatives of the department’s Industrial Associates (corporate advisory board) along with U.S. Dept. of Agriculture’s Director of Homeland Security and Purdue’s media personnel and faculty participated in the one-day program.

The simulation was developed by faculty from Purdue’s Krannert School of Management and the Purdue Homeland Security Institute’s Synthetic Environment for Analysis and Simulation (SEAS) Laboratory. The simulation was modified by food science graduate students and faculty, along with Krannert faculty. The graduate students and computer programmers from SEAS modeled the supply chain from supplier to manufacturer to retailer, developed inputs for ten company-based teams—three bulk ingredient companies, four processors, and three retailers—plus a USDA team, a Food and Drug Administration team, and two media sources. The modeled supply chain included products and their ingredients; geographic production, warehousing and shipping information; quantities of production and sales; economic impacts associated with food product recalls; and public health impacts for each state.

The goals were to provide companies an opportunity to test their security plans on a realistic scenario while feeling the pressures of time, publicity, and finances. Data for the simulation were actual data from public and private sources. The “companies” were placed in separate, soundproof rooms according to their place in the supply chain and were provided data from the computer simulation model and from electronic reports from “government” teams and the “media.” Participants then made action decisions based on this information and learned the impact of decision making in the following round.

The simulation began several days after the contaminating agent had been introduced. This allowed the tainted product to work its way to the consumers. Realism of the simulation allowed for time lags in product movement as well as reporting of illnesses at the local-hospital level. Players were able to identify that an “event” was taking place and make decisions immediately. When the teams finished their decisions, the simulation advanced to another virtual day. Additional information was given each simulation day, with the entire model lasting a total of 11 virtual days. All of the teams met in one large group every four “days” to review their decisions.

Throughout the simulation, availability of accurate and timely information was vital. The ability of the food companies to communicate with their suppliers, distributors, the media, and government agencies was essential. Teams were provided with an instant-messaging program to communicate publicly or privately with other teams. Most teams made decisions based on information they received from multiple inputs: government releases, media releases, and communications between each other. Good communication also enhanced the trace-back of contaminated products and ingredients.

Participants were unanimous in their opinion that role playing and simulations are vital to increasing industry awareness and readiness for a bioterrorism attack. What they learned is being applied to various areas in their companies. They not only reviewed their bioterrorism policies but also updated policies regarding human resources, record keeping, production and operations security, and handling during distribution and warehousing.

The threat of an attack on the food supply will always exist and should be taken seriously. I urge each of you to think about potential vulnerabilities in your own organization.

It is our vision that this simulation be utilized to advance preparedness and strengthen decision-making abilities related to biosecurity threats. We are interested in sharing our approach in the simulation exercise to other groups. Interested parties should contact me at [email protected].

by Michael Reckowsky is Administrative Director and Corporate Liaison, Dept. of Food Science, Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN 47907-1160, [email protected]. Also contributing to this article were graduate students Lynn Choi, Krista Schultze, and Travis Selby and Purdue faculty members Richard Linton, Alok Chaturvedi, and Shailendra Mehta.