THE MAGAZINE

Food Sector Abandons Its ISAC

By Joseph Straw

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) says the formation of information sharing and analysis centers (ISACs) is key to intelligence sharing. That is why it recommended back in 2006 that each of the country’s 18 critical infrastructure sectors form an ISAC. But the food sector has abandoned the model, even as experts acknowledge the need for a “network of networks” to tie together the industry’s information resources.

The food and agriculture sector was one of the first to form an ISAC, doing so in 2002 even before DHS existed. But the Food Marketing Institute, which hosted the Food ISAC, suspended the program earlier this year due to lack of activity and information flow, says Clay Detlefsen, vice president of regulatory affairs and general counsel for the International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA) Food Sector Coordinating Council.

An ISAC’s primary purpose is sharing threat information, whether among industry stakeholders or with government partners. But the Food ISAC did not receive any terrorism-based threat information, apparently because no threats had been detected. “There’s no information to be shared and analyzed; none going in,” Detlefsen says.

Meanwhile FoodSHIELD, a post-9-11 information-sharing  network established by the Department of Agriculture with the University of Minnesota’s DHS-funded National Center for Food Protection and Defense, faces loss of funding. Instead DHS is expected to push the use of its Homeland Security Information Network Food and Agriculture (HSIN-FA), a new Web-based information-sharing portal, Detlefsen says.

Industry and public health officials question the DHS move, saying there is no need for new independent data portals in the food sector. If a specific food-related terrorist threat were to emerge tomorrow, Detlefsen says, there are many ways for users to get meaningful information about it and to share that with others who need to know.

Older Web-based information-sharing portals for food and epidemiology sectors proliferate, while the food sector’s myriad trade groups, like IDFA, exist primarily to share information with members, Detlefsen says.

The country’s state and local public health community shares his view.

“We don’t need another system,” says Dr. Gail Hanson, the Kansas state government’s epidemiologist, who gets involved in state investigations into incidents that raise concerns about food safety, such as the recent Salmonella outbreak that caused people in Kansas and many other states to become ill.       

Among existing systems is the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) PulseNet, a database containing DNA types for various strains of reportable diseases. The database is used to determine whether dispersed illnesses are part of the same outbreak.

Hanson herself points to other data exchanges popular within the epidemiology community, including the Health Alert Network from the CDC and regular updates from the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists.

Yet the country still needs a unifying system to facilitate data sharing among food-safety stakeholders, say Michael R. Taylor of The George Washington University and Michael B. Batz of the University of Florida. The two offered recommendations for establishing such a system in their report “Harnessing Knowledge to Ensure Food Safety: Opportunities to Improve the Nation’s Food Safety Information Infrastructure.”

Chief among their recommendations is leadership at the federal level. They call for the formation of a national council to govern information sharing and establishment of a user group, consisting of professionals working in the field, to tell policymakers what they need.

“Everyone in the system gets this problem, but it’s no one’s job to fix it. There’s the will, but not the wherewithal,” Taylor says. Whether that leadership will appear, “remains to be seen,” Taylor says.

Detlefsen acknowledges that his sector lacks a unified information-sharing mechanism. “I can’t say how many times there have been discussions about linking the systems,” he says, “and it doesn’t happen.”

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