In the aftermath of any foodborne illness outbreak, from those that go unreported to those the size of Germany’s recent E. coli disaster, one thought is often likely to cross the minds of experts in food defense and bioterrorism: At least this outbreak wasn’t intentional.
Back in 2008, after Salmonella on jalape√±o peppers — initially thought to be on tomatoes — sickened 1,442 North Americans, University of Minnesota veterinary medicine professor Shaun Kennedy tried to imagine how many more might have suffered if the same event were intentionally caused. When a single truckload transports 200,000 servings of jalape√±os, an action like contaminating the peppers’ protective wax at the processing plant could potentially sicken exponentially greater numbers of people.
Kennedy is the director of the National Center for Food Protection and Defense (NCFPD) in Saint Paul, Minn., where he and other food defense professionals work to better understand the nation’s vulnerability to intentional attacks on the food system. As a Department of Homeland Security Center of Excellence, the NCFPD conducts research in a multitude of interrelated fields such as supply chain management, risk assessment, epidemiology, and food microbiology, all in an attempt to help food suppliers ensure their products travel from farm to fork without intentional contamination anywhere along the way.
The importance of food defense becomes most apparent when considering how long it takes to detect a contamination, track it to its source and issue a recall.
Kennedy cites the timeline of the 2006 North American spinach recall as an example: Although it was “one of the most rapid recalls in history,” 26 days still passed between the initial contamination and the eventual recall — a full 10 days after the expiration date for the spinach in question.
“This is typical in many of our episodic foodborne illness outbreaks: By the time we realize there’s an event, it’s over,” Kennedy told an audience at this year’s Food Technology Innovation & Safety Forum in Chicago. “For food safety, that’s bad enough. For food defense, it’s particularly worse because of the potential mortality associated with the agents of concern.”
According to Kennedy, intentional contamination has been used as an act of war since as early as 590 B.C., when Athenian soldiers poisoned water supplies as they besieged the town of Kirrha. During World War II, Japan experimented with food contamination in China, air-dropping pathogen-injected candies into cities for children to find.
In 2002, documents retrieved from an al Qaeda training camp suggested the terrorist group had researched how to compromise food supplies in the U.S., while in 2006 approximately 350 Iraqi police officers were sickened after being intentionally fed rotten chicken. In the last 18 months, Kennedy said, there have been intentional contamination attacks targeting government or military officials in at least five countries.
“Whether the food is domestically sourced or imported, if there’s someone with a mission who has inserted themselves into the supply chain, you’re not going to find the contamination,” Kennedy told Food Safety News. “You can’t test for everything. Just as in food safety, when you’re thinking of food defense, you’re simply trying to buy down your risk, but you can never bring it to zero.”
And with the increasing global complexity of our food supply, the number of potential avenues for intentional contamination in the U.S. has similarly increased. Today, some large-scale U.S. food producers import ingredients from countries with questionable or non-existent food safety authorities, such as juices from Iran, wheat gluten from Kazakhstan or walnuts from Kyrgyzstan.
But Kennedy argued that there is no inherent difference in risk between a large supplier using imported ingredients and a small supplier that grows locally. It all comes down to the people directly responsible for the food and the measures they take to keep it safe, and Kennedy said the large importers are often more likely to compensate with safeguards and tracking capabilities where smaller companies may just rely on trust between their sources and employees.
“The way the import/export system was originally set up was not intended to account for consumer protection, so it really rests on the supply chain owners. They can drive back into their supply chain to better understand the source,” Kennedy said. “In some cases, it may look a little messy, but the companies generally do a very good job.”
Imports don’t pose the only threat, either. In 2003, a disgruntled supermarket employee in Michigan contaminated roughly 250 pounds of ground beef with pesticide, sickening at least 92 people. Similar stories happen more often than most consumers think, Kennedy said, and the most common cases of intentional contamination are spouse-on-spouse.
Kennedy said that one of the most innovative ideas the NCFPD has introduced to food defense since its inception in 2004 has been revising the way food producers evaluate themselves for defense. Instead of focusing on risk management at a facility-to-facility scale, the center has helped producers transition to a systems-based approach, ensuring each segment of the supply chain manages its own vulnerabilities with checks and balances.
With the advent of the Food Safety Modernization Act, laws will now require producers to verify the effectiveness of their mitigation strategies in regard to food defense. How exactly that will be done, he said, is yet to be determined, but he could not overstate the importance for effective defense of the food system.
“[Attacking] the food system is the one terrorism event in which consumers cannot take themselves out of the target population,” Kennedy said. “You don’t have to be in an outdoor stadium. You don’t have to get on a plane. You can survive without power. You don’t have to go to the Washington monument. You have to eat.”