Cyber-attacks and ransomware are among the major novel threats to food firms, according to speakers during a panel discussion about food fraud and defense.

Tim Lang, Jennifer van de Ligt and Jon Woody spoke about food defense, and the many definitions, at a recent Health Talks webinar organized by the World Health Organization (WHO).

Lang, professor of food policy at City University London’s Centre for Food Policy, said the term “food defense” is being used too narrowly.

“The challenges in the food system are not just about food safety, they include climate change and societal and political challenges. Think only of Ukraine. The risks to food defense are not just medical or microbiological,” he said.

Potential cyber disruption
Lang said food defense sits in a cluster of themes including food democracy, food control, food self-sufficiency, food resilience, food risks, food capacity and food sovereignty. Different perspectives are competing for policy space such as public health, military, legal, sustainable development, behavioural and social.

“Now we’ve got cyber security; why does that matter in food? Because modern logistics is all about just in time and satellites. Disrupting that is a way to disrupt a nation’s food supply. All of these are arguments for saying food defense has to have a social element. Alongside this food safety and risk assessment approach within food commerce, we need to have a softer and a population approach to build food resilience into systems.”

There has been four decades of investment into just-in-time logistics, said Lang.

“That cyber threat is due to investments we’ve made in super-efficient computer logistics and satellites. We’ve known diseases cross borders for ages but what is new is a more complicated system of food distribution and the infrastructure has not kept up. The answer is better international cooperation. Cyber security issues is a new avenue for potential disruption where deliberate adulteration and getting of money to pay to end the fraud are tied together. The potential for food to be used as a weapon is ahead of our regulatory approaches.”

Lang said there were a number of reasons a rethink was needed now.

“Food systems have changed, there has been a revolution. It’s uneven, it’s far ahead in the rich world where the population is over-consuming and just under a billion people are hungry. There are massive problems of food safety in the developing world. The political economy is in turmoil and price volatility has been constant,” he said.

“The broad public health approach to food defense needs development and fleshing out again, good safe food cannot be left to companies, it’s about consumers, civil society, culture and so on, this broader approach to food defense provides space for injecting the social aspects of emerging food systems stress and this can’t just be done at the UN level, it has to be done globally, regionally, internationally, at the city and local level.”

There tends to be a perspective in public protection to see food safety and fraud issues as isolated and not widescale, said Lang.

“There’s always a tension between saying this is a particular individual or a badly managed company or poor training. Sometimes there are moments when you need to look at the total system and I think we are at one of those moments where we need to rethink quite a lot.”

The intelligent adversary
Van de Ligt, director of the Food Protection and Defense Institute, said regulation of food defense is much newer than food safety and is not always globally recognized.

“Food is an attractive target: everyone eats around the world, it can be used as a weapon very easily and it is really hard to detect and track where the adulteration happened. We also talk about an intelligent adversary, this is a person who understands the system, they understand how to find the vulnerabilities and they will gain access and evade detection. Most don’t want to get caught. They want to do this for a long time to make money but occasionally they make mistakes,” she said.

“The take home message when I speak to industry is vulnerability and it is something the food industry has the ability to control. It could be a disgruntled employee or a contractor that’s angry at a company, they can cause widespread public health harm so focusing narrowly on the motivation of terrorism doesn’t do the broader food defense concept justice.”

Three things are needed for a food defense incident, said van de Ligt: motivation, capability and vulnerabilities.

“We have economically motivated adulteration, sabotage and terrorism. Economically motivated adulteration has been prevalent for a very long time, one of the marker incidents was when melamine was added to dairy products in China. Intentional adulteration happens when there is an incentive or opportunity,” she said.

“If you think about the current environment, challenging economics are right there. There are shortages, supply chain gaps and the war in Ukraine, so we have a global environment that is ripe for food fraud incidents. We are seeing more labor shortages and transportation issues and that’s creating some stresses from a food defense perspective, which is setting the environment for additional food crime.

“The problem that we have is different countries use different terms. In the UK it is food crime, in the U.S. we use food fraud or economically motivated adulteration, some countries prefer food integrity or food authenticity, or tampering.”

FDA regulation and approach
Woody, from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, said there is a low likelihood of a biological or chemical contaminant being introduced into the food supply with the intent of harming people but the potential wide scale public health implications could be significant.

The FDA Intentional Adulteration rule of 2016 applies to importers and domestic food producers.

“We had intended to begin inspections in 2020 but the pandemic broadened the timeline. We have commenced inspections of facilities and will continue to train our regulators on how to evaluate those food defense plans,” said Woody.

“When developing the Intentional Adulteration rule, FDA saw that industry is getting hit with so many different issues. It’s hard to continue to talk about intentional adulteration, when there thankfully hasn’t been an issue. Companies have to prioritize their own limited resources in tackling these significant issues and sometimes there is a sense of fatigue. We are trying to work through that and accomplish what we need to and be mindful that industry resources are stretched thin.”

FDA is continuing to see a focus on cyber and there is a myriad of ransomware issues impacting food companies, said Woody.

“Cyber is something we’ve increasingly been focusing on over the past years. There are ransomware issues but we are looking at connections between cyber security and public health. Part of this process has been educating ourselves and reaching out to others who have the expertise to get up to speed.”

(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)