Recipe for Food Safety

Article excerpt

DEBATE, AND PERHAPS SKULLDUGGERY, are the predominant tactics used during political campaigns, but years ago members of an Oregon religious commune came up with a more nefarious strategy to influence an election: food poisoning. Commune members used salmonella bacteria to contaminate local salad bars in an effort to sicken voters and prevent them from casting ballots. Although no one was killed, more than 750 people became ill and many had to be hospitalized.

Food tampering does not get as much attention as other potential national hazards, but those who work within the nourishment industry are well aware of the risk. Former Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson remarked two years ago that he could not comprehend "why the terrorists have not ... attacked our food supply, because it is so easy to do...."

Thompson had voiced similar fears shortly after the September 11,2001, attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., when he told a congressional terrorism panel that he was concerned about the likelihood of terrorists attacking the American food supply by introducing poisons into domestically cultivated crops and livestock.

Terrorists are not the only people who present a potential threat. Others include disgruntled employees or extortionists hoping for a financial settlement from the targeted company.

Some scientists take a contrarian stance on the likelihood or possibility of the food chain being attacked by large-scale assaults such as terrorism. They argue that the known list of chemicals and biological agents that would likely be used in an attack are very easily spread among animals but have little chance of harming a great number of humans. But past examples of food attacks have illustrated that smaller operations can have a profound effect on the industry.

In fact, an attacker doesn't necessarily have to actually harm the food supply to have an economic impact. Even a hoax can be financially devastating to a company. Consider what happened in March 2005, when a female diner at a San Jose, California, Wendy's restaurant claimed that she found a severed finger in her bowl of chili. The report was very quickly revealed to be a hoax in which the woman had hoped to extort money. But by then the incident had already received nationwide press causing a scared public to eat elsewhere. It is estimated that the Wendy's chain lost in excess of $2.5 million.

Prior to 9-11, most regulations in the food industry focused on safety and prevention of accidental or environmentally based contamination. Since then, the U.S. government has focused new attention on the framework for protecting the food supply. What follows is a look at the primary agencies with jurisdiction, the potential types of attackers and means of attacks, and some of the measures now being adopted to counter the threat.

The Agencies

The two main federal agencies that are charged with food security are the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). The FSIS, which is a division of the Department of Agriculture, is tasked with protecting the nation's supply of meat, poultry, and eggs, while the FDA, under the direction of the Department of Health and Human Services, protects everything else in the food chain.

Many security practitioners favor consolidation of these entities into one department devoted to food security to eliminate the inherent inconsistencies in having dual agencies. However, that approach has yet to gain the congressional support needed to pass legislation that would restructure the regulatory bodies.

Both of these agencies have had to respond to mandates from Congress and the President to strengthen food safety in the post-9-11 world. Key among these was the Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act of 2002. The law was designed to shore up the authority of the FDA to deal with the grave threat of a terrorist attack against the food supply. …