How Safe is the Food Supply?

By Jospeh Straw

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. That incident was not the result of malicious or terrorist attacks on the food supply, but it revealed the vulnerabilities in the system that a terrorist could exploit.

Government and industry, led in part by academia, are working to add-ress the problem through various measures. The goals are to assess vulnerabilities, then find solutions, including better livestock-tracking and outbreak-detection capabilities.

At the federal level, the Strategic Partnership Program on Agroterrorism (SPPA) has brought together the 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. Separately, DHS launched its Food Agriculture Sector Joint Committee on Research to bring together industry leaders and regulators, both to consider policy and to study potential ramifications of attacks.

In academia, DHS’s national centers of excellence in food security are conducting a broad benchmarking and assessment survey with the goal of establishing industrywide best practices for food supply-chain security.

Experts say the greatest challenge in food security lies in the area of detection—detecting contamination in suspect products. Another important component in supply-chain safety is the ability to track back to the origins of a product when a problem surfaces. To address that weakness in the system with regard to meat products, the USDA has been working on a voluntary animal ID program, dubbed the National Animal Identification System (NAIS), which it plans to launch this year.

Joseph Straw is an assistant editor at Security Management.



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