How Safe Is the Food Supply?

Article excerpt

ONE HUNDRED AND NINETY-NINE PEOPLE living in 26 states got sick between August and mid-October of last year after eating fresh spinach that was contaminated with E. coli; 31 developed kidney failure; three died. The problem was ultimately traced to spinach grown in California's Salinas Valley in fields fouled by manure, but by the time the origin of the problem had been discovered, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had issued a blanket advisory recommending that consumers stop eating raw spinach altogether. Industry estimates placed the cost of the outbreak at $74 million--nearly a third of the sector's annual revenue.

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Two months later, an unrelated E. coli outbreak tied to two major fast food chains, Taco Bell and Taco John's, made dozens sick. Investigators in those cases were unable to find the cause of the problem, though they suspected that it was related to contaminated lettuce.

In the case of the tainted spinach, considerable attention was given to the dangers of eating the bagged greens on supermarket shelves at the time the story surfaced. The media did not emphasize, and the public did not understand, that there is typically a two-to-three-week lag between when people get infected with E. coli and when authorities realize and publicly report that an E. coli outbreak has occurred.

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The first documented case of E. coli in this instance was diagnosed on August 19; public health officials determined the existence of an outbreak September 9; and the FDA issued its public warning September 14. The shelf life of fresh leafy greens is 21 days.

That timeline shows that when the suspect products are highly perishable, they are gone--consumed or discarded--before the public can be warned. "By the time we know that it's happening, it's already over as far as our ability to intervene," says Shaun Kennedy, associate director of the University of Minnesota Center for Animal Health and Food Safety.

The two E. coli incidents were not the result of malicious or terrorist attacks on the food supply, but they revealed the vulnerabilities in the system that a terrorist could exploit.

While it's a tall order, government and industry, led in part by academia, are working to address the problem through various measures. The goals are to assess vulnerabilities, then find solutions, including better livestock tracking and outbreak detection capabilities.

Assessing Vulnerabilities

At the federal level, the Strategic Partnership Program Agroterrorism (SPPA) has brought together the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the FDA, the FBI, and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), plus state and industry officials. They are jointly assessing high-risk points in the food chain and disseminating that information to industry and government officials.

SPPA uses the CARVER + Shock risk-assessment method, which views a target from the perspective of an attacker seeking to inflict maximum harm. Devised by the U.S. Department of Defense, the method breaks a target into segments and considers, per the acronym, its criticality, accessibility, recuperability, vulnerability, effect of loss, and recognizability, to assess the "shock" effect of an attack.

As of early this year, the group had conducted more than 20 product-specific assessments of items deemed vulnerable to terrorist or criminal attack, with a total of 50 assessments planned: 25 will be of products regulated by the USDA, which handles meat, poultry, and dairy products, and 25 will be of packaged food products regulated by the FDA. Results are being made available exclusively to industry and government officials in the field.

There are general attributes that make a product an attractive target and, therefore, a top candidate for an SPPA vulnerability assessment. The attributes are that the product comes in large production volumes, contains numerous ingredients, and can preserve pathogens or foster their growth, explains Kennedy. …