What really scares European Union officials like Isabelle Benoliel is the risk that terrorists or criminals might contaminate Europe’s food supply in some way that allows them to sicken and kill far more people than a conventional bomb attack could. Benoliel, senior advisor on bioterrorism at the European Commission, says, “Bioterrorism is less likely than classic terrorism using bombs, but a biological or food terrorism attack could cause greater impact.”
The appearance of HV5N1 avian flu virus in Europe and the succession of crises in the British meat industry have further increased unease over food safety and security. The U.K. beef industry has not fully recovered from a succession of foot-and- mouth disease outbreaks and the BSE (mad cow) crisis.
The United Kingdom estimates that a 2001 foot-and-mouth outbreak alone cost the country between $12.4 billion and $13.9 billion. Another outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease took place in mid-2007 after a strain of the virus escaped a government research laboratory in southern England, according to a government investigation of the incident.
Neither avian flu nor foot-and-mouth present immediate threats to human health, but officials worry that terrorists or criminals could intentionally infect livestock or poultry farms to undermine a country’s economy, terrorize consumers, or extort companies. They also want to be prepared for the day when nature itself might cause the problem to affect humans.
While the EU and member states have plenty of laws and regulations controlling aspects of the continent’s food supply, from nutrition to labeling to safety, the food industry remains vulnerable to attack. An EU consultative paper on bio-preparedness issued in July 2007 identifies some of these vulnerabilities. The concerns range from inadequate food processing and handling standards to patchy detection systems and inadequate crisis-management mechanisms.
Food-industry security executives acknowledge that the food supply is at risk. While many food-industry companies fear bioterror concerns could lead to overregulation, one CSO at a major American food outlet in the United Kingdom says that he welcomes heightened official interest in food security. “The authorities are always looking at threats to the critical infrastructure, but they are not looking much at the food chain and asking themselves what could happen if political activists or terrorists interrupted it,” he says.
The European Union collectively and its member states individually are focusing broadly on bioterrorism, which encompasses possible threats to the food supply. They are tackling the threat with multiple initiatives that fall generally into the areas of response, detection, and prevention.