Farm-to-Fork Security

Americans spend more than $1 trillion on food each year, and usually we get what we pay for. Built into the cost in most instances is the safety and security of the various ingredients, from the time they’re grown and prepared to the moment they enter our mouths. From that perspective, we enjoy one of the safest food supplies in the world. But the system’s not perfect.

Every year, some 76 million Americans are affected by foodborne illnesses.

That number is a best guess by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which says it cannot be exact because many people do not go to a doctor. What’s more certain is that those illnesses annually result in an average of 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths. For the most part, those foodborne fatalities are caused by naturally occurring infections from bacteria and parasites and not from sabotage.

But in recent decades, and especially since 9/11, the deliberate contamination of the food supply by terrorists has been seen as a serious threat—one with unique challenges requiring increased food inspection, disease surveillance, laboratory capacity, and, in general, awareness by health professionals and the public.

FSMA Measures
The Food Safety Modernization Act signed into law by President Obama at the beginning of January is designed to meet some of those challenges. Among other measures, the act increases the number of inspections at all food facilities, requires annual inspections of high-risk facilities, and mandates that the food industry develop plans that identify hazards and implement the right preventive measures. What this latter part means, as ADT Security Services’ Hank Monaco notes, is that now all food manufacturers and suppliers have to, by law, have a safety plan in place to quickly identify and limit possible terrorist threats.

“If you think about it, this law really encompasses the whole food supply chain,” says Monaco, vice president of commercial marketing for the Boca Raton, Fla.-based company, a division of Tyco International. “So, if you’re a company that manufactures, processes, distributes, or sells to the end user, you’re going to be affected by this act, so you’re going to really want to make sure you’re paying attention to what the requirements are.”

Where the food defense portions of the law are concerned, Monaco says ADT is helping companies integrate their security elements in three key areas: “One is ensuring they have access control, starting with perimeter protection and then controlling access to certain spots that are really critical points within the facility, using video surveillance and other necessary monitoring components; two is alerts, having the proper equipment to alert the facility and those who need to know when something occurs; and then three is auditing, which is showing how you’re ensuring that you are complying and doing what you say you’re doing within FSMA.

“That third one is one of the big components of the act because it does give FDA the ability to come out and audit, which requires you to really validate what you’re doing, as opposed to using merely internal auditing procedures,” Monaco says.

In addition to expanding FDA’s access to a food company’s records and testing results, FSMA also enables FDA to more effectively respond to a foodborne illness outbreak by giving the agency new authorities to order recalls and shut down tainted facilities.

On the international level, the act requires importers to verify the safety of imported food and empowers FDA to deny entry of any goods that lack certification or adequate inspection by U.S. inspectors.

FDA for Thought
In all, FSMA is the latest in a series of federal actions taken since 9/11 to strengthen the safety and security of U.S. food. Part of the Bioterrorism Act of 2002 contained a food safety requirement that prompted FDA to require companies in the food industry to register with the agency and give it prior notice of imported food shipments.

It also authorized FDA to administratively detain suspect food, and it created a requirement for food companies to establish and maintain records for up to two years of information that could address credible threats.

In January 2004, the Bush administration issued a directive calling for a coordinated national approach to countering threats to the food supply, tasking the Department of Homeland Security with leading national food defense efforts while working with the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Health and Human Services and EPA. Yet, despite increased responsibility and concern, FDA did not receive additional funding to support food-related anti-terrorism activities until FSMA came along, giving that agency more resources and power than it has had in its history.

When Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) introduced FSMA in 2008, he said he could envision the legislation serving “as a starting point to bring our food safety laws into the 21st century.” He added: “It is the first step toward a food safety system that is transparent, risk- and science-based, accountable to consumers, and dedicated to the public health goal of preventing foodborne illnesses.”

Durbin was right to see FSMA as only a starting point.

For while it is the most comprehensive federal action for food defense to date, there are just too many links along the supply chain where the industry remains vulnerable.

As DHHS noted in guidance it issued in 2005, “Contaminating food does not require as much technical skill and organization as does weaponizing anthrax. Opportunities for access to the food supply stretch from farms and feedlots to restaurants and cafeterias.

For example, terrorists could introduce an agent during the harvesting, packing, shipping, delivery, or preparation stage. Clearly, these acts are possible.”

The problem is that even after FSMA measures are fully realized, the possibility of such acts will still exist.

This article originally appeared in the April 2011 issue of Security Today.

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