Why Food and Water Defense?
POTENTIAL CONSEQUENCES. “Food defense” has become an important subject in the age of global terrorism. In fact, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has designated 16 “critical infrastructure” sectors considered so vital that their incapacitation or destruction would seriously hurt the country, and one of these sectors is food and agriculture.
“The food production, processing and distribution systems, whether wholesale or retail, are potential targets that must be hardened rapidly or eventually suffer the consequences,” says Bob Norton, a veterinary microbiologist who chairs the Auburn University Food Systems Institute’s Food and Water Defense Working Group.
There is a problem, though. The average person assumes the U.S food and water supplies are safe because of government oversight, yet in reality keeping our food and water systems safe depends on individual companies (and municipalities in the case of water) themselves doing a good job. Food companies know their own businesses better than the government could ever hope to, but small- and medium-sized producers and processors need help assessing threats and developing defense plans. Even large companies and municipalities are stretched and therefore may need pragmatic solutions to food and water defense problems. Families, for their part, need help in being ready for disruption of the food and water systems we take for granted.
INTENTIONAL CONTAMINATION. Broadly, food and water defense is the protection of food and water from intentional contamination or adulteration. Threats don’t have to be from foreign terrorists. Threats also may be the result of internal sabotage by a disgruntled employee. Food defense plans by definition must include protection and maintenance of a company’s brand.
An example of intentional contamination that threatened a brand occurred in 1982, when an unknown perpetrator laced Tylenol capsules with cyanide, creating a lethal weapon that caused the agonizing deaths of seven people. In addition to the enormous human tragedy, the “Tylenol brand” was immediately damaged. The damage to the brand could have been permanent but was not, thanks solely to a prompt and effect response by the company.
“Brand is everything in this highly competitive economy, and a company not capable of protecting the consumers of its products is a company likely not long for this world,” Norton says. “Business cannot depend on the government.”
TERRORISM. Nor should the threat from foreign terrorists be ignored. ISIS, for example, has broadcast its desire to destroy the U.S. and its people. The group has acquired chemical weapons and appears to be hard at work trying to acquire biological weapons and nuclear material. The world is at risk and the United States is at risk, including our food supply. A terrorist attack on a key food could have a magnification effect, destroying trust in the U.S. food supply.
Domestic terrorism also can’t be dismissed. In an early example of what we now call “bioterrorism,” a religious cult in Oregon contaminated the salad bars and salad dressings at 10 local restaurants with Salmonella. They hoped to incapacitate enough voters that their own candidates would win in a county election. As a result, more than 750 residents fell ill with acute gastroenteritis, with 45 of them hospitalized. Fortunately, the plot was detected and some of the perpetrators were prosecuted.
Detection after the fact is not good enough in the global economy. Food defenses have to be made robust and agile enough to detect bad actors before they have been able to do damage. Food Defense therefore has to become proactive, which is exactly where the Food and Water Defense Working Group is operating.
“We work ‘left of bang,’ meaning we are concerned with giving the food industry the best tools, tactics, and protocols (TTPs) to enable proactive detection of threats and threat actors,” Norton says.