If The Fight Comes To Food

Dec. 21, 2004
Producers are taking steps to prevent a terrorist attack. But are they doing enough?

As it did for so many other sectors of manufacturing, the world changed dramatically for food processors in the wake of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. For example, last year the estimated 420,000 domestic and foreign facilities that produce, process, pack or store food destined for American consumers were required to register with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The registration is designed to allow the FDA to quickly identify and locate affected food manufacturers and other establishments in the event of deliberate food contamination. Meanwhile, the Washington, D.C.-based National Food Processors Association (NFPA), which represents nearly 400 food companies, is working with HHS, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Agriculture Department to improve coordination and communications between the private sector and government on critical food-security issues. "We're looking at how do we communicate among ourselves in the food industry, as well as how do we communicate with state governments and the federal government, so if something happens we know how everything is going to work, who is going to be notified and what are we going to do," says John R. Cady, NFPA's president and CEO. The Food and Agricultural Industry Sector Council, the successor group to the post 9/11 Alliance for Food Security, has been discussing such matters as vulnerabilities in the food supply chain, bio-surveillance initiatives, and the development of industry best practices for safety and security of food manufacturing, processing and distribution. "I can't tell you whether the food supply is a top target for terrorists, but I can tell you that all of us in the food industry are going to ensure that the food is safe and secure," says NFPA's Cady. "Every food manufacturer is focused on security but, for obvious reasons, I can't talk about specifics." The FDA, however, has given the industry some specific suggestions for minimizing the risk of possible terrorist actions. A document issued last year lists nearly a dozen ways to make plants more secure, with attention to the facilities' physical boundaries, their interior work areas, and the flow of materials and people in and out of the plants. In addition to recommending that manufacturers develop new risk management plans, the FDA also is urging companies to screen prospective employees, and put only experienced and trusted employees in vulnerability points. Richard D. Sem, a 35-year international security consultant in Trevor, Wisc., says because the food chain in the U.S. is so massive, a terrorist might not be able to do the kind of widespread damage that would result from an attack on a chemical or nuclear facility. But just one incident of a terrorist contaminating a food plant would trigger fear among the American public. "The large brand-name food manufacturers are taking a lot of security-proactive steps, but my concern is with the average, medium-size food firms, and even some of the large ones that are doing relatively little," says Sem, who provides security consulting services to food manufacturers. "From my perspective I still see many food and beverage plants that are very accessible; they are not hard to get into and there is still a lack of awareness among employees. The industry as a whole has not been as proactive as it should be."

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