The events of September 11 reset the priorities of the government, the food industry, and the public. A few months ago, food allergens and GMO labeling seized the attention of FDA and food companies. Today, the focus has shifted to keeping the food supply secure from biohazards and massive contamination threats.

Government Efforts

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Department of Defense (DOD), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are collaborating on the bio-security initiative. The government seeks to develop guidelines for industry, to obtain additional funds for increased inspections and to improve security at government facilities.

President Bush has requested $45 million from the USDA to:

  • increase security at USDA facilities,
  • build more storage facilities for hazardous materials, and
  • dedicate resources for education, training and technical support to states, local governments, and the food and agriculture sector.
The USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service also has established a food biosecurity action team to deal with potential threats against the food supply.

President Bush's emergency relief budget request includes $104 million for biosecurity at the FDA, in addition to the agency's $6.8 million fiscal year 2002 budget request for these activities. Of the new funds, $61 million is slated to increase inspection of imported food products. The FDA also expects to release guidelines on “How to Keep Food Manufacturing Secure from Biohazards” in November.

The EPA continues to ensure that the water supply is safe, even from terrorist attack. The agency works with local water utilities to conduct assessments of vulnerabilities, to tighten security around facilities, and to enhance emergency response plans in case an attack occurs.

Industry Efforts

The food industry also has been working actively to assure the food supply remains safe. Numerous associations are participating in the Alliance for Food Security, which holds meetings with government agencies coordinating food security issues. Food-related associations and food companies are reluctant to share specific steps that are being taken to reduce risk, for fear of laying out a blueprint for potential attacks.

Internally, the food industry is sharing the steps many companies are taking to improve security around factories, to complete background checks on new employees, and to limit the number of employees who have access to key areas of facilities. Several industry members have worked closely with government agencies to answer questions regarding specific food concerns. Recently, the Alliance for Food Security sent a letter to Tom Ridge, director, Office of Homeland Security, urging close coordination between government and industry efforts to safeguard the food supply.

Who Identifies Threats to Food Security?

The FDA has the lead responsibility within the Department of Health and Human Services for ensuring the safety of food products, with the CDC serving as the lead agency for conducting disease surveillance. The CDC monitors the occurrence of illness in the U.S. attributable to the food supply, and provides early warnings about dangers in the same. In addition, both the FDA and CDC are enhancing their surveillance activities with respect to disease caused by foodborne pathogens, and are working with federal, state and local officials to coordinate these activities.

What Should Companies Do?

According to the FBI, companies suspecting suspicious activity should contact immediately their local law enforcement agency, as well as the local FBI office. If there appears to be immediate danger, the area should be evacuated. For investigative purposes, the area should be secured, and all witnesses should be identified. Companies also need to secure paperwork that identifies the chain of command for the food items in question. These steps will assist investigators in quickly determining if a product has been contaminated and who may be responsible.

Finally, the concern over food security has renewed calls for a single food agency. The General Accounting Office endorsed a single, food safety agency in the testimony, “Food Safety and Security: Fundamental Changes Needed to Ensure Safe Food,” given on October 10, 2001, before a subcommittee of the U.S. Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs. Senator Richard Durbin introduced the Safe Food Act (S. 1501) that would overhaul food safety functions at the FDA and the USDA by creating a new Food Safety Administration responsible for food safety, labeling and inspections. Whether it is increased funding for current agencies, or an overhaul of the regulatory system, bio-security of the food supply is the major food safety concern this year.