Food Supplies: Bar Handling by 'Almost Anyone'

Article excerpt

Everybody eats. That makes the nation's food supply, both domestic and imported, enough of a possible terrorist target, Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson told Congress last week, to justify significantly greater security measures. "Am I satisfied with the inspections we're doing? No," said Thompson. "I am more fearful about this than anything else." The Bush administration has therefore asked Congress for an additional $61 million to inspect food. That would buy 410 more inspectors to add to the Food and Drug Administration's existing 750.

Today they manage to check only 1 percent of the 3.7 million shipments of imported food that arrive each year, according to Congress's General Accounting Office. Similarly tiny percentages of domestic produce and processed food get tested. Still, as experts assess the vulnerability of America's food supply, from farm to fork, what is emerging is fairly reassuring.

Start in the fields. Poisoning grain or produce there is both hard to pull off and unlikely to lead to mass illness, let alone death. Unscheduled "aerial applicators" would "raise questions immediately," says Peter Chalk of the think tank Rand. And ever since reports that the Sept. 11 hijackers had inquired about such planes, hangars have been locked and some operators have even removed parts to keep the aircraft grounded. More important, pesticides and other poisons can't even be sprayed on crops in doses that are both lethal and surreptitious. Even if a terrorist managed to drench a field with, say, the pesticide methyl parathion or arsenic or anthrax, the farm workers would be affected before the crop reached consumers.

From the farm, grain is stored in massive silos, which also make unlikely targets. At The Andersons, which operates grain elevators in the Midwest, employees have increased security around their stored corn, soybeans and wheat, and are ensuring that the rail cars that transport the crops are completely sealed. "The opportunity and the effectiveness of adulterating the grain at this level is very low," says general manager Joe Needham.

The best way to keep poisons out of processed food is to keep poisoners out of food-processing facilities, where tomatoes turn into ketchup, apples into juice and the rest of the harvest into groceries. Manufacturers are ramping up in-house security through "a variety of safeguards," says spokesman Peter Cleary of the Grocery Manufacturers of America, "from the raw product through the manufacturing process to delivery." One step: companies are monitoring closely when an employee asks for a job transfer, especially one that would give him new access to a process that could affect food's safety. They are also securing gates, fences and transports and ensuring that no workers carry anything from the locker rooms to the factory floor. …