In Defense of Food

Keeping food safe from terrorist attack is the focus of the U of M–based National Center for Food Protection and Defense.

In Defense of Food

Consumers inherently recognize that as long as they eat, they're at risk.

Along with the air we breathe and the water we drink, the food we eat serves as one of our most essential connections to the environment. That may help explain why a survey conducted a few years ago by University of Minnesota researchers found that, although respondents believed a terrorist attack on our food supply to be the least likely form of imminent terrorism, they also identified it as the one they would spend the most to prevent.

“Food is the one area in which consumers cannot take themselves out of the target population,” says Shaun Kennedy, director of the National Center for Food Protection and Defense, the University-based research consortium that funded the study. “Consumers inherently recognize that as long as they eat, they’re at risk.”
To illustrate how serious the potential threat of intentional contamination at any point in the food chain by biological, chemical or radiological agents could be, Kennedy points to the challenges food safety faces even before the specter of terrorism is raised.

“Due to Mother Nature and random stupidity, we have 76 million cases of foodborne illness a year, 325,000 hospitalizations, and 5,000 deaths,” he says. “If random accidents can have that much of an impact, think about how easy it would be to intentionally cause harm if you wanted to.”

Launched with a grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in 2004, NCFPD has taken a multidisciplinary, farm-to-table approach to addressing food-focused terrorism. Experts from universities around the country fill the rosters of its research teams. Its industry work group comprises representatives of the nation’s leading food firms, including local heavy hitters Cargill, General Mills and Supervalu.
Food safety has been a prominent concern of government and industry since the publication more than a century ago of The Jungle, Upton Sinclair’s reality-based novel exposing the woeful conditions in Chicago’s stockyards. But food defense requires companies to take a different approach to their vulnerabilities.

“There’s a certain probability you’re going to have bacterial con¬tamination during slaughter, so you can then calculate the return on investment from reducing that probability of contamination,” Kennedy says. “Intentional contamination of a food system is a deterministic event. I can’t give you a probability that someone’s going to penetrate your plant and contaminate your food system. So the return-on-investment calculation doesn’t work.”

Yet, when faced with the possibility of a catastrophic contamination that could threaten their very viability, many companies are willing to try to eliminate that eventuality, he says.

Some solutions are relatively simple: running background checks on employees, for example. Behavior monitoring is another practice more firms are adopting, says Kennedy: “If a person’s job is hanging chickens on a rail and they start asking lots of questions about quality assurance practices and where chemicals are stored, you might want to look into this guy.”

A more complex approach to addressing the threat of intentional food contamination has been developed by Eden Prairie–based BTSafety under the auspices of NCFPD’s event modeling research team, which brings together data from the center’s four other research groups (agent behavior, systems strategies, risk communication and education). The Consequence Management System allows companies and government agencies to simulate the likely consequences of a hypothetical food contamination event and assess how those consequences would be affected by changes in the scenario, such as increasing the amount of contaminating agent or altering the timing of a public announcement. The results can be tracked on maps of the U.S. showing the movement of the contaminated product through the food distribution chain. A version of the Consequence Management System has been used by the Department of Homeland Security to assess the threat of attacks on the food supply for its integrated terrorism risk rankings, which help guide federal spending on biodefense-related research, development, planning and preparedness.

Kennedy believes our country’s food defense has improved since 9/11, if only because awareness has improved. For example, NCFPD staff members have been invited to provide sessions on what they’ve learned about modeling vulnerability and consequence in food systems at the International Dairy Foods Association annual trade show in September.

“You wouldn’t have had that happen before,” he says. “Usually trade associations aren’t all that keen about inviting speakers to come in to talk about bad things that could happen to them and what they should do about it.”

DAVID MAHONEY is a freelance writer who has contributed to a variety of national and regional magazines, including Esquire, The History Channel Magazine, Delta Sky, andAcura Style.