Whether it was a Washington gaffe (telling the truth by accident) or whether then U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson really meant to say it, he spoke with unusual candor in 2004 when he said: “I cannot understand why terrorists have not attacked our food supply.  Because it would be so easy to do.”

A half dozen years have passed since that statement, and it just might be getting harder for would-be food terrorists.

USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) has been pushing “food defense” ever since Thompson dropped his bombshell.  And in its latest survey of meat and poultry processing plants, FSIS found 72 percent have a functional food defense plan in place.

That’s up from 62 percent a year earlier in 2009.

Ninety-seven (97) percent of the large plants regulated by FSIS have a food defense plan in place, compared with 82 percent of the small and 64 percent of the very small establishments that have food defense plan.

“Food defense is not the same as food safety,” a FSIS “how-to” for creating a plan says.  “Food defense focuses on protecting the food supply from intentional contamination, with a variety of chemicals, biological agents or other harmful substances, by people who want to do us harm.”

“These agents could include materials that are not naturally occurring or are not routinely tested for.  An attacker’s goal might be to kill people or disrupt our economy.  Intentional acts are generally not reasonable and are hard to predict.”

The first step in writing a food defense plan is doing an assessment that begins with asking such questions as whether the plant’s exterior is secured to prevent entry by unauthorized persons.

FSIS this year made the voluntary adoption of food defense plans a performance objective for the processing plants it regulated.   It has a goal of reaching 90 percent compliance by 2015.

The agency has been monitoring the meat industry’s voluntary adoption of food defense plans via annual surveys since 2006.

The survey questions determine whether each FSIS-inspected establishment has a food defense plan and, if so, whether the plan is functional.

A plan is functional if measures are in place to address outside security, inside security, personnel security, and incident response; and if the plan was reviewed and tested in the last year. 

The fifth food defense plan survey was conducted in August.


The universe of facilities surveyed was expanded in 2010 to include not only meat and poultry slaughter and processing establishments, but also processed egg products plants and official import inspection establishments.