Could the food supply be next?
That's been one of the questions posed by the general public, food suppliers and government officials since the virulent eruption of terrorism on American soil Sept. 11.
But interviews with crop scientists, growers, suppliers, industry officials and safety experts reveal that while food supplies might appear to be an inviting target, massive contamination would be a complex task for even the most ardent and skilled terrorists.
Even attacks on individual grocery stores are unlikely for a couple of reasons, experts say:
- Substantial safeguards have been in place for years on how food is handled from the farm to the store. And since the September attacks, distributors and store operators are watching their supplies even more closely.
- The majority of food in grocery stores is packaged or protected in cases. While produce is vulnerable, spreading poisons on the food would be difficult, and suspicious activity in store aisles would likely draw immediate attention. Even if some food was poisoned, it would cause harm to relatively few people—and that's not the aim of terrorists who appear intent on inflicting severe damage.
So while an attack against the food supply is possible, the likelihood that it could cause widespread devastation is doubtful.
Still, people in the food business are worried—even though they aren't eager to talk about the prospects of bioterrorism publicly. Several sources expressed concern that by talking about the subject they "might give terrorists ideas." While that concern is, perhaps, understandable, given the attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., and news reports of terrorists' sophisticated planning, it appears there's little that the al-Qaeda terrorists haven't thought of.
But within the food and natural products industry, the prospects of bioterrorism have a lot of people talking. The topic was a major source of conversation at the annual Natural Products Expo held in October in Washington, D.C. The first anthrax contamination on Capitol Hill was announced the last day of the show—the previous day, 75 conference attendees had been on the Hill lobbying their congressional representatives.
"It's a topic everyone is very nervous about. The industry is aware of it, and I know that shippers and retailers are discussing it," said an executive of a Colorado-based organic farm who would only speak anonymously.
Safety Steps Built In
An explanation of how products from that farm reach the public, however, shows the safety that is built into the system. Most of the crops are handpicked, field-boxed immediately, and then moved to cold storage. Within 48 hours, grocery stores and distributors pick up the produce and carry it away in cold, secure trailers.
"The pickers are people who come back year after year; they're a very close-knit group, and we know them very well," the executive said. "And the people on our loading docks know the drivers, they deal with them every day."
At stores, the produce either goes into cold storage or is placed immediately for sale. In many stores, the vegetables are sprayed with cold water to help maintain freshness and to wash away any residues. And all consumers, presumably, rinse vegetables again at home.
"Food is vulnerable, but a lot of security is already in place," says Kathy Means, vice president of the Produce Marketing Association, based in Newark, Del. "A lot of that security is related to concerns about theft. So there are more security measures in place than even people in the industry might realize."
The PMA recommends that retailers talk to employees about being more alert to unusual activities around or inside stores, and to report any suspicious actions or people immediately.
National media have noted that salad bars could be targets; and, indeed, they have been in the recent past. In April 2001, a homeless man was arrested for spraying a mixture of feces and urine on New York City salad bars.
Poisoning salad bars, however, won't cause widespread carnage.
"Salmonella can be produced easily. But most cases of salmonellosis go away in a few days," says Michael Doyle, director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia.
The Bigger Picture
Doyle is more concerned about problems that could occur in food processing plants, especially those that handle meat products. E. coli O157:H7 is a potentially lethal pathogen that occurs naturally, but it can also be manufactured and spread on meat. E. coli infections usually result from eating undercooked meat, and people have died from outbreaks. But the bacteria is easily killed when meat is cooked thoroughly, Doyle says.
But even in industrial-style processing plants, strong food-safety systems are in place and the federal government conducts regular inspections. "The key in a processing plant is security, and most of the big companies have very tight security."
Some people worry about imports, Doyle says, and the federal government is considering more stringent and wide-ranging inspections of food that comes in from overseas. Many bacteria, however, are naturally occurring and can be found in food anywhere.
"It's all a matter of assessing the degree of risk," Doyle says.
Bob Scowcroft, director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation in Santa Cruz, Calif., says he's worried about the government meddling too deeply. Some people have suggested that all imported food be irradiated before entering the United States. Because a substantial amount of organic food is imported, the organic industry would oppose that sort of blanket approach, Scowcroft says.
Examining even broader questions about food supply security is Bill Brown, a professor of plant pathology at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. He works with farmers, including organic growers, to identify outbreaks of crop diseases and insect infestations.
Every year a variety of diseases descend on fields of corn, grains, soybeans, potatoes and other crops. Most of the diseases usually blow in on winds from their breeding grounds in semitropical climates. Strains of the diseases are kept in laboratories around the world, Brown says, and these could fall into the wrong hands.
But he's not just worried about radical Islamic fundamentalists. Attacks could be launched by eco-terrorists opposed to genetically modified crops; or by "financial terrorists"—commodities traders, for example—who have a stake in how much grain is harvested.
"I'm not trying to sound an alarm, but there's no way to predict. You can come up with all kinds of scenarios," Brown says.
While attacking large farm fields is possible, it wouldn't be easy, Brown says. To deliver a devastating blow, diseases or poisons would have to be sprayed over a wide area from the air—most likely with crop-dusting airplanes. That might have been what some alleged terrorists had in mind when they inquired about flying crop dusters.
Still, wiping out even a small percentage of America's food supply would require spraying hundreds of thousands of acres in dozens of states. Given the nation's heightened awareness, it's unlikely that rogue crop dusters would get too far.
The Organic Trade Association, which represents 1,200 businesses in the United States and Canada, is urging members to be more cautious, says Katherine DiMatteo, executive director. Growers, suppliers and stores should continually evaluate their security and involve employees in the process.
"Store operators need to look at their quality-control systems," DiMatteo says. "Do you know your suppliers? Are you telling employees to look out for anything unusual? Are products stored in secure areas? These are commonsense things. Those are the sort of precautions that all of us need to be mindful of. We're all somewhat reluctant to think we have to be that vigilant, but we do."
Joseph P. Lewandowski is a freelance writer based in Fort Collins, Colo.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 1/p. 20, 22
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 1/p. 22