FOOD CHAIN HEIGHTENS BIOSECURITY MEASURES SINCE 9-11
by Linda L. Leake, Contributing Editor
Airplanes aimed at landmarks, anthrax in the mail, total disregard for the well being of innocent people . . . what deadly terrorist surprises might unfold next? If you have concerns about foul play relative to our food supply, take heart. Organizations with pivotal roles in production and distribution are taking a proactive approach to ensuring our food is not only safe, but secure.
GROCERY MANUFACTURERS OF AMERICA
"Since 9-11, we have initiated several strategic actions with the government and our member companies," says Peter Cleary, manager of public policy communication for the Grocery Manufacturers of America (GMA).
With more than 120 member companies nationwide and U.S. sales of more than $460 billion, Washington D.C.-based GMA is the world's largest association of food, beverage and consumer product companies.
"We established a task force on food safety, which includes experts from our membership in legal, regulatory and scientific affairs," Cleary begins. "This task force has actually been in existence for some time, but it was realigned on September 15, 2001. Since then, the 20-plus task force members have conducted almost daily conference calls with personnel from the USDA, FDA and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)."
The GMA has also compiled a database of experts who are in charge of food security and processing for their respective member companies. "With that database, key food industry security personnel can be contacted around the clock, and they are also available to advise the USDA, FDA, HHS and the Office of Homeland Security as needed," Cleary explains.
The Food Marketing Institute, Washington, D.C., also collaborates with GMA to tackle food safety issues, Cleary adds.
The GMA compiled a list of elements for member companies to consider as they increase food security procedures. Recommendations include heightened security measures at the transport level; rejection of any containers of raw materials which arrive at manufacturing plants with broken seals; increased written records about who handled what materials and when; and limitations as to what employees may and may not carry in, out of and around the workplace, just to name a few.
"The food industry has dealt with tampering incidents in the past, so we knew before 9-11 where the central control points of our food chain were," Cleary says.
It's not by chance the United States has the safest food supply in the world, Cleary emphasizes. "The grocery industry has had inspectors and regulations in place for years," he points out. "But we are all acutely aware that we've entered a new era of security, which will involve a new regime of safety procedures. GMA members are continuing to make already strong security methods even better. They are re-evaluating existing protocols and making recommendations and changes as appropriate."
AMERICAN FEED INDUSTRY ASSOCIATION
On October 5, 2001, the board of directors of the American Feed Industry Association (AFIA), Arlington, Va., launched a plan to enhance biosecurity measures for its member companies. Under the plan, the board appointed a task force of industry experts to identify possible security breaches and effective methods of protection.
AFIA's initiative focuses on three key goals, according to Rex Runyon, vice president of the organization. "First, we are offering essential information on how to keep the feed industry from becoming a conduit for terrorist activity," Runyon says. "We also are developing a very concise document with a central focus. Thirdly, we are disseminating the guide on a very widespread basis to feed and pet food manufacturers, feed grain and ingredient suppliers, and to dealer/retail networks, among others."
"We are identifying strengths and possible areas of concern throughout the feed industry," adds AFIA Chairman Dwight Armstrong of Akey, Inc. "We plan to accomplish this without providing insights for those who may wish to exploit industry vulnerabilities."
The task force has distributed the guide free of charge to AFIA member companies and non-Association members, and published it on the AFIA Web site at "www.afia.org"
AFIA has been involved in several government and industry biosecurity meetings since September, Runyon mentions. Most recently, AFIA joined with other food and agriculture organizations in a series of briefings for staff on Capitol Hill. The Food Security Alliance, of which AFIA is an active member, provided information and answered questions at separate briefings for staff from both the House Agriculture Committee and the House Committee on Energy & Commerce.
UNITED FRESH FRUIT AND VEGETABLE ASSOCIATION
Founded in 1904, the United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association (UFFVA), based in Alexandria, Va., is the national trade organization that represents the interests of growers, shippers, processors, brokers, wholesalers and distributors of produce.
Since 9-11, the UFFVA also formulated a task force to coordinate efforts to implement safety procedures for the entire fruit and vegetable industry.
"We plan to look at how we do business every day and ways to enhance the security system already in place," says Duke Hipp, UFFVA's former director of communications. "In the interim, it's important that consumers not confuse food security with food safety. Food safety is a different issue, and we don't want anyone to forget that we have the safest food supply in the world," Hipp emphasizes.
NATIONAL PORK BOARD
With the threat of accidental outbreak of foreign animal diseases, particularly foot and mouth disease, looming heavily over U.S. animal agriculture in recent years, the livestock industry started heightening biosecurity measures long before 9-11.
In 1996, the Working Group on Animal Health Emergency Management was launched by the Animal Agriculture Coalition, the American Veterinary Medical Association, the U.S. Animal Health Association (representing state veterinarians) and USDA to discuss developing a new model for animal health emergency management in the U.S. The Working Group has evolved into the National Animal Health Emergency Management Steering Committee with the Federal Emergency Management Agency joining in 2001. The focus of the Steering Committee is to facilitate a partnership approach to addressing animal health emergencies including foreign animal diseases.
In addition to the resources from that support group, state animal health officials and USDA can now tap into state and federal emergency management resources in the event of a crisis involving livestock, according to Veterinarian Beth Lautner, a charter member of the Steering Committee. Lautner serves as vice president of science and technology for the National Pork Board (NPB), the pork industry's checkoff-funded promotional and educational organization.
Since 9-11, producers have become more aware of the threat of intentional infection of our country's livestock population with foreign animal diseases, Lautner says. Infecting animals would be a way for terrorists to strike the livestock sector because they only need to tamper with one or two animals to cause a major outbreak, she points out. In addition to FMD, classical swine fever - formerly known as hog cholera - would be the most likely biological weapon used to infect hogs.
In recent months, several states, plus Canada and Mexico, have even conducted one-day to week-long emergency preparedness drills relative to livestock, Lautner relates.
"We always had recommended biosecurity measures in place to promote domestic and foreign disease control," Lautner says. "For example, with checkoff funds, we produced a video last March on farm biosecurity that was sent to more than 1,000 swine veterinarians, plus the state pork producer associations."
Since 9-11, the NPB has directed special press materials concerning biosecurity toward pork producers and the U.S. farm media. Additionally, the National Pork Quality Assurance program now includes an enhanced section on foreign animal diseases.
Pork producers have heeded President Bush's advice and become more aware of their surroundings, Lautner says.
"In that regard, we are encouraging all pork producers to review their biosecurity plans, but the same advice pertains to producers of all livestock species," Lautner relates. "We are also advising producers to watch for suspicious events, vehicles or people around their farms, and to report such concerns to local law enforcement personnel."
There are several questions to consider relative to ruling out or confirming possible terrorism, Lautner adds. Have the animals been exposed to any potentially contaminated meat? Has the producer recently entertained any international visitors to the farm? Has he or she recently traveled to a foreign country? Has anyone claimed responsibility for the situation?
"If producers should detect an unusual disease situation, we are advising them to contact their state or federal animal health officials who will be able to take the appropriate samples to test for foreign animal diseases," Lautner mentions. "The officials will determine if the problems could be related to terrorism and will contact the FBI. The FBI has become the lead agency to tackle any acts of terrorism that might target livestock." AM
Freelance journalist Linda L. Leake follows world events from her home base in Wilmington, N.C.