To protect the nation's food supply from terrorist attacks, a major food industry trade group is teaming up with the FBI.
In mid-February, the Food Marketing Institute and the FBI signed an agreement to create the food Industry Sharing and Analysis Center. The agreement is one of several the FBI has signed with private industry groups in the wake of Sept. 11.
Tim Hammond, chief executive officer of the Washington, D.C.-based FMI, said the industry has always shared information with the Food and Drug Administration regarding general food hygiene safety issues, but the potential for terrorism brings new issues forth.
"In the past, when we talked about criminal activity it was about check forgery and bank robbers who also targeted grocery stores," Hammond said. "But since Sept. 11 we've started talking about bigger security issues."
A major attack on the food supply, Hammond believes, is unlikely. "We don't think the food industry is the easiest target," Hammond said, "but we still have to be prepared."
The cooperative program will work like this: A special communications network will be set up—secure phone numbers, e-mail and Web sites—to link FMI and its members with the FBI. If any significant threat is suspected, the FBI will be contacted and the agency will investigate or issue a rapid-response warning to the industry and, if necessary, to the public.
Hammond is more concerned about hoaxes that could cause widespread panic than about actual attacks. Early in the year someone sent an e-mail saying an attack would be launched on the food supply. The message was sent to major media outlets and to people throughout the food industry. Law enforcement officials determined the threat was a hoax.
The problem, Hammond explained, is that authorities weren't notified immediately, and it took more than two weeks to inform U.S. food companies that the threat was meaningless. Fortunately, media members sensed the message was a hoax and didn't report on the threat.
"We were walking a tightrope between encouraging copycats and getting information to the industry and the public," Hammond said. "With the ISAC in place, we'll be able to get information out quickly. This encourages a two-way flow of information."
The mission of the food ISAC is to:
- help the food industry reduce its vulnerability to malicious attacks;
- help the FBI identify credible threats and issue warnings;
- supply experts to the FBI for assessing specific threats.
FMI is set up to issue warnings and advisories and to provide information, Hammond said, but being fully prepared will take months. FMI officials are meeting with other food industry associations to discuss how they can work together to better organize the network. FMI wants to foster more communication between various industry segments such as transportation companies, information technology providers and agricultural organizations.
At press time in early March, officials at the Greenfield, Mass.-based Organic Trade Association said they hadn't been contacted by the FMI about this issue.
Food industry groups will be writing guidelines that address specific security issues, a situation that Hammond really likes.
"We're the experts in the industry so we'll write these instead of someone in an agency."
The FDA will continue to monitor basic food safety issues; ISAC will address more specific food industry issues.
"ISAC is set up to deal with deliberate vicious acts against a big asset like trucks or a computer system, or a big agriculture producer or system," Hammond said.
Groups involved in the new organization are dedicated to long-term vigilance.
"Terrorists groups are willing to spend a long time preparing for a strike, so we're set up for a long-term process," Hammond said. "Anyone involved in any critical industry is now on the front lines of the war on terrorism."
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 4/p. 16