Skip to main content

COVER STORY: Security check

You could imagine the jaws dropping in stores across the country as Tommy Thompson, former secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said in his parting press conference last December, "I, for the life of me, cannot understand why the terrorists have not attacked our food supply, because it is so easy to do."

While few would deny that the food supply could be a target for terrorists (some experts say that no amount of work could make the system terrorist-proof), it's what didn't make the headlines in the days and weeks that followed Thompson's words that is telling: From farm to fork, the food industry since 9/11 has stepped up to the plate in dramatic ways to better protect the food supply.

Increased federal funding, the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security, and the issuance of the Bioterrorism Act have been discussed publicly, which assured consumers that the issue isn't being taken lightly. Yet much of the work has been behind the scenes, with government, businesses, and academia busily hashing out worst-case scenarios, strategizing what to do in case of an attack, and, perhaps most important for retailers, exploring how to recover from an attack as quickly as possible.

Across the country, university researchers are working on developing faster, more efficient testing for biological, chemical, or radiological agents in food; government and industry are collaborating at the state level in seminars and tabletop exercises to uncover unanswered questions; and even online courses designed to educate food retailers on bioterrorism are being launched at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia.

"The industry, in cooperation with the government and the intelligence community, has done a tremendous amount of work since 2001 in our ability to respond to any kind of deliberate attack, and to put in place the mechanisms, day in and day out, to prevent it from happening," says Tim Hammonds, president and c.e.o. of the Food Marketing Institute in Washington D.C., which has been at the forefront of government-led initiatives. "You can't overestimate the amount of work and cooperation that has gone on throughout the industry on this."

Government liaison

FMI in 2002 led the development of the Food and Agriculture Information Sharing and Analysis Center (FA-ISAC), which serves as a voluntary industry contact point for gathering, analyzing, and disseminating information between companies and the nation's security teams, as well as the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration.

Parallel to the FA-ISAC, FMI heads up the Food and Agriculture Sector Coordinating Council (FASCC), a voluntary alliance of all the major sectors in the food industry, including restaurants, retailers, agriculture production services, food processors and manufacturers, and animal and plant producers. The group, divided into subcouncils, reports on key issues that federal government should be aware of, and communicates each sector's needs and requests for resources to the government.

"We've been putting out e-mail bulletins and alerts on an as-needed basis," says Hammonds, who notes that so far the communiques have been "more in the nature of precautionary information and advice on how to respond."

Yet if this is just the calm before the storm -- as Thompson's comment might lead some to believe -- it isn't clear whether retailers are truly prepared for the worst, particularly at store level.

Since biosecurity is still a relatively new issue for the industry, it's difficult to gauge to what degree the average retailer is currently responding, and what more may need to be done. Jean Kinsey, professor and co-director at the Food Industry Center at the University of Minnesota, hopes to shed some light on the situation. For a benchmarking project, she's begun to measure where the industry is in terms of preparedness, and where any holes may be. She and her colleagues will be talking to food retailers, wholesalers, and foodservice companies in the coming months. Meanwhile researchers at the University of Michigan are working on a similar project to gauge the efforts of manufacturers.

Kinsey and others note that retailers' efforts, whatever they might be, are voluntary. And with many other immediate concerns demanding their attention, food security is now lower on their list of priorities, according to some measures. CIES-The Food Business Forum, a global food business network based in Paris, for example, reported in its 2005 "Top of Mind" survey of executives that food safety/security has dropped out of the top five ranking of concerns for the first time since 1999. It now falls behind issues such as competition, retailer-supplier relations, customer loyalty and retention, technical standards/supply chain efficiency, and consumer health and nutrition.

Store safety

At store level, at least some managers are still virtually in the dark about biosecurity. One food safety expert who requested anonymity says managers at supermarkets in the major city where he lives told him they "hadn't thought about it," when he asked what they'd do if terrorist-contaminated food showed up in their stores.

As FMI sees it, stores are not likely to be priority terrorist targets. "A large part of what FMI has done has been to work across the entire food supply system, from farm to table," notes Hammonds. "If terrorists were going to tamper with a food product, they probably wouldn't do it at retail. It would be done before it reaches retail, so we have to be coordinated throughout the whole food chain."

Still, some observers note that store-level attacks could happen on a scale large enough to create panic.

"What if terrorists chose four or five different stores in different parts of the country that were all part of the same chain?" asks Kinsey. "The news comes out that produce in these four stores is contaminated, and the store brand is toast for the next six weeks—and so is the supplier." Terrorists look to do economic damage, not just immediate physical damage, she observes.

The threat is real

Just how likely is it that terrorists could successfully attack the food supply? "Highly likely," says Ted Labuza, professor of food science and engineering at the University of Minnesota.

As part of a food safety project prior to 9/11, Labuza and one of his students had been developing a computer model to measure the typical distribution cycle for fresh produce in the United States. "In about seven to 10 days, a shipment of lettuce had gone through the entire food chain to 1 million homes all over the country," he notes. "We were interested in finding out about how to quickly and efficiently trace sources of foodborne illness."

Now, thanks to a $15 million grant the University of Minnesota received from Homeland Security, Labuza and his former student, Jeff Sholl, who formed the Sholl Group, Inc. to distribute the Green Giant Fresh brand, continue to develop the model as a tool for traceability in the post-9/11 world.

"We're gathering information on points of the food chain that have vulnerability. Our model shows that refrigerated fresh foods like produce, fish, meat, and dairy move very rapidly through the chain. The objective is that if we can't prevent it from happening, how soon can we identify it?"

Identification is investigated on two levels, notes Labuza -- first, how to detect symptoms in farm workers, and second, rapid testing of up to 300 biological agents in food. In the future Labuza and his colleagues will take on the testing of radiological and chemical agents, as well. "That's not easy to do in the food matrix," he observes.

In his own research Labuza is also exploring what can be done during food processing to ensure that potential agents are destroyed before they reach consumers.

Act local

The most important step for retailers is to put together a plan of action in case of a bioterrorism attack, Labuza advises -- a plan that must focus on the local level. "Suppose a store manager is told that some of the lettuce on his shelves contains anthrax. What should he do? Are the local fire department and police equipped to do something about it? Retailers should meet with local groups and come up with a plan as to how to respond."

Some retailers and wholesalers are doing just that, with the cooperation of local and state governments. While "all states are aware" of the importance of food security, some are more involved than others, notes Timothy Weigner, director of advanced programs at the Uriah Group, a consulting firm specializing in homeland security-related risk management and training, based in Falls Church, Va.

"New Jersey has been very, very active," says Michael Ambrosio, director of quality assurance at Wakefern Food Corp., and the food sector chair on the state's infrastructure advisory committee. "We meet quarterly. The state attorney general chairs the meetings, and there are people from 21 sectors representing everything from A to W -- agriculture to water. They keep us abreast of what's going on -- there's a constant exchange of ideas and concerns.

"What's good about these meetings is that the government is really reaching out for the private sector to help them walk down the road of compliance," notes Ambrosio, who's also chairman of the New Jersey Food Council's biosecurity task force. "You're cutting right through the red tape -- concerns are voiced at the table. Your job is not to know what law enforcement knows, but, more importantly, you want to be involved in a process -- you want to walk hand in hand with them, especially if it involves your company."

One of the primary goals for the food sector, continues Ambrosio, is to establish a demonstration of knowledge of bioterrorism preparedness at store level. The group is currently working with the Food Policy Institute at Rutgers University to develop a module for training store-level personnel.

"You try to work through education, training your associates that if they spot something suspicious, they should bring it to the attention of management," he notes.

Practical steps

While retailers won't put steel gates around their stores, they should assess every vulnerable part of the store, and then minimize the risks that they can, according to Ambrosio. "When you look at the enormity of products sold every day in the supermarket, every one of them could be a problem, and that's a challenge in itself. You have to decide which areas you can focus on."

Kinsey at the University of Minnesota suggests a practical, step-by-step approach. "Retailers should look around the store and ask themselves, 'If I were a terrorist and wanted to make a splash in the store, where are the vulnerable spots I might consider?'"

Grocers should also rethink the security of their Internet connections, including Internet systems they've coordinated with suppliers, she adds.

The Uriah Group, which works with government and private clients, has done tabletop exercises in states including Ohio and Michigan, in which the state departments of agriculture and health got involved. "These exercises are well attended and received. People really walk away with ideas for more," notes Weigner.

Following a one-day seminar with the Uriah Group, the Ohio Food Industry Foundation, an arm of the Ohio Grocers Association, was inspired to begin developing a bioterrorism disaster preparedness resource kit specific to the industry, which it would distribute to retailers throughout the state. The group is seeking funding for the project, and hopes to implement the kit sometime this year, according to Tonya Woodruff, director of the Ohio Food Industry Foundation.

Training sessions are meant to identify strengths and possible weaknesses, notes Weigner. "We sit down with our clients and make sure they have protocols in place. The Department of Homeland Security just came out with a National Response Plan, and the first emphasis is on preparation -- making sure you have certain nodes and firewalls in place. From a security standpoint, preparation and planning are always the first steps."

The second area of focus, says Weigner, is response. "The response period is important because it can determine the extent of loss to property and to people. We go in and test the response of various organizations -- how well they respond, communicate, and coordinate with each other."

For instance, the Uriah Group worked with a retailer in the southern United States to test its response policies with local health and federal agencies, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the FBI, and the Department of Homeland Security. "We looked at how well they worked with the media, what role they should play with a command center. We also tested how well they understand when to call local agencies vs. when to call in the federal government for support."

While many of the protocols for bioterrorism response are the same across the board, each state's agencies have their own nuances, observes Weigner. "There are 50 states but more than 2,500 regulatory agencies in the U.S., and each agency has its own requirements and its own personality, just as each industry does."

After determining the best plan for response, retailers have to tackle another difficult issue: the recovery process. "After the incident has occurred, you may be left with illness or even death, destroyed product, and closed facilities," says Weigner. "Recovery is making sure you can safely open your facilities, have the tampered product out of the system, and take care of the public."

Retail: an important link

Notes Weigner: "One thing we hear is that the government is looking toward industry to assist them in response, but the industry is looking toward the government to assist them in recovery." By participating in tabletop exercises, local agencies often begin to realize how important it is for businesses to recover quickly, he explains. "The county realizes that it permits licenses to many of these establishments for a fee—so they'll begin losing revenue at the county level. They see the importance of the survival of everyone together."

Hammonds of FMI concurs. "One of the things we've been successful in helping to sensitize government to, is that in any kind of emergency, the supermarket really becomes the focus of the local community's efforts. If people can't get to the store and can't get supplies and food quickly and easily, then you have a real potential for panic situations."

Simulation exercises can reveal potential roadblocks. "We have uncovered natural conflicts between the law enforcement community and the food safety community that have to be ironed out in advance. For example, if, after an event, laboratory people were trying to collect samples and send them away to labs to be analyzed, and then at the same time you had law enforcement coming in and declaring a crime scene and putting up yellow tape, you really shut down the analysis and early-detection efforts."

Issues like this make it all the more important for all links of the food chain -- retailers included -- to get on board with biosecurity now.

Eventually, some observers predict, bioterrorism preparedness will no longer be voluntary for supermarkets.

"In the long run, it's just too important," notes Kinsey. "It's like with food safety -- it isn't voluntary that [supermarkets] have to keep [their] refrigerators below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. It would be nice if everyone got involved voluntarily, but we know that doesn't happen."
This ad will auto-close in 10 seconds