The term “food defense” can be a perplexing concept, especially since it represents protecting the food supply from intentional, criminal, and/or malicious contamination. In practice, food safety and food defense overlap in certain respects, but still can be used in a synergistic fashion to build on existing food protection programs. In other words:
Food Safety + Food Defense = Food Protection.
For food defense efforts to be effective, though, some common myths must be dispelled and certain resources shared to lay the groundwork for a culture of overarching food protection at local as well as state and federal levels. Among the most important aspects of an effective food defense strategy are the steps taken to: (a) involve the local level; (b) determine vulnerabilities; (c) integrate federal requirements; (d) locate and/or develop essential resources and training plans; and (e) fund the preceding and other initiatives that might be taken.
Essential Involvement Starts at the Local Level Similar to the regional and global nature of food supply chains, foodborne outbreaks and food recalls also can be either localized or geographically widespread. Regardless of the origins of the food itself, the first indicator – and usually the first response to a foodborne incident – will originate locally.
In the United States, food protection regulators at the local level oversee, inspect, and provide technical guidance governing a wide variety of food operations within their service areas to help ensure a safe food supply. Thanks in large part to this supervision, local jurisdictions often may be the first to hear of or otherwise detect an illness or outbreak – and usually the first ones to respond as well.
An effective public health response depends on the timeliness of reporting, investigation, and regular communications among federal, state, and local partners. Developing these important working relationships before an incident – usually by means of networking, plan development, exercises, and similar activities – ensures a better coordinated response when intentional contamination is suspected. Regulators’ knowledge of these partner food protection agencies – as well as adequate training in surveillance, reporting, and response techniques – is critical to reduce disease and sometimes deaths resulting from contaminated food.
Intentional Contamination at the Food service Level Many U.S. food defense efforts are targeted at agriculture, processing, and packaging purveyors because of the vast geographic spread of the nation’s food distribution system. Although targeting food defense efforts at the farm and industry levels is important to prevent large-scale, multi-regional foodborne outbreaks, it also is important to remember that smaller independent retail food establishments – the so-called “mom and pop stores” – are a significant source of food products for many consumers. Specific efforts are needed, therefore, to protect these and similar establishments through the use of various types of prevention campaigns.
The vulnerability of retail food service to conscious contamination is well documented. In 2009, for example, G. R. Dalziel, a researcher at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, examined all known incidents of intentional and malicious contamination of foodstuffs along the entire food supply chain in that area. Almost 98 percent of the intentional food contamination incidents he studied, Dalziel found, “occur downstream in the food supply chain – at retail outlets, the home, and workplace.” In addition, he determined that cases occurring at the food service point of the supply chain led to the greatest number of illnesses and had the largest impact on public health. (The perpetrators for most of these incidents, it should be emphasized, were not involved with terrorist cells.)
Researchers at the University of Missouri agree with Dalziel’s findings, and explain – in their 2009 Food Defense planning guide – that intentional contamination “may be caused not only by people outside an operation, but also by workers, family members, or others with regular access, and most cases have occurred for more mundane reasons thaneology.” These scholarly agreements help to support both the need for an increased focus on food defense education and the creation of preventive initiatives at the point of food service operations.
Many local inspectors and regulators are not sure, though, exactly how to integrate food defense into their own working routines and processes. For example, as forensic sanitarian Robert Powitz reflected – in a 2007 article in Food Safety Magazine – the federal requirements “outlined for a comprehensive, secure retail food establishment … [are] somewhat daunting, confusing, and sometimes quite illusive if applied to a smaller operation of limited financial and facility resources.” Nonetheless, it is often the influence of a health inspector that facilitates the use of food defense initiatives in small local establishments. Unfortunately, many health departments throughout the United States are simultaneously burdened both by shrinking budgets and by the double loss of both experienced personnel and material resources. When attempting to do more with less, integrating food defense into traditional regulatory food safety inspections often comes as an afterthought.
Such perspectives may be amended by envisioning food defense as an “enhanced” version of business as usual. In other words, it is particularly important to find new and perhaps more imaginative ways to combine food safety and food defense – food protection, in general – into the same integral component of traditional inspection activities. By encouraging relatively simple policies and procedures – posting signs, for example, that no one should enter the kitchen without permission – neither regulators nor the frontline food service personnel they work with are likely to be unduly burdened. Education, awareness, and implementation are obviously easier when all of the agencies and individuals directly involved consider achievable successes in assuring the availability and consumption of safer food.
A Wealth of Resources & Training Courses Already Available Douglas Powell, professor of food safety at Kansas State University, noted – in a June 2013 article about food protection on the food safety daily barfblog.com – that access to the right tools, coupled with compelling messages, has been demonstrably effective in promoting food defense. Free and credible resources are immediately available for elected officials, health departments, and food service personnel to begin or enhance their food defense efforts. Following are brief examples of some of those resources:
- FoodSHIELD (www.foodshield.org) is a web-based system for communications, coordination, education, and training between and among the nation’s food and agriculture sectors. Regularly scheduled food defense webinars, online training sessions, and a searchable database all provide professionals involved in food protection with the tools they need to build and improve their food defense capabilities.
- The National Center for Food Protection and Defense website (www.ncfpd.umn.edu) is a robust online resource portal that provides a wealth of information for food service professionals, students, and educators. Of particular value are the site’s online training modules, which explain food protection and defense concepts in relatively short didactic presentations intended for anyone – food industry workers, government officials, and academic educators and researchers – seeking to learn more about food defense.
- The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also has numerous free print and online resources available (www.fda.gov/Food/FoodDefense). For example:
The Food Related Emergency Exercise Bundle (FREE-B) is a compilation of scenarios based on both intentional and unintentional food contamination incidents. It is designed primarily to assist government regulatory and public health agencies in assessing existing food emergency response plans, protocols, and procedures that may already be in place, or that are in the process of being revised or developed. The FREE-B is designed to allow various jurisdictions and organizations – the medical community, private sector organizations, and law enforcement and first responder communities – to “play” with the host agency, or for individual agencies to test their own plans, protocols, and procedures independently.
In May 2013, the FDA released The Food Defense Plan Builder, a user-friendly software program designed to help owners and operators of food facilities develop their own personalized food defense plans. This computer-based program harnesses existing FDA tools and resources for food defense planning into a single place. These tools and resources include the FDA’s food defense guidance documents: the Vulnerability Assessment Software Tool and the Mitigation Strategies Database.
Grant Funding Available for Food Defense Initiatives The FDA encourages regulatory stakeholders to consider the possibilities of incorporating the agency’s food defenseeas into the stakeholders’ own food safety-related programs. As part of this focus, the agency provides Innovative Food Defense Program grants, which are designed primarily to help build additional food defense tools and resources that can be easily replicated and therefore complement, aid in the development of, or improve state, local, tribal, and territorial food defense programs. Access to previously awarded and completed projects is free and provides additional valuable and replicable resources that agencies or food supply professionals can use to create and/or enhance current food defense programs.
Michéle Samarya-Timm has an MA in Homeland Security and Defense from the United States Naval Postgraduate School and a BS and MA in Health Education from Montclair State University. A Masters Certified Health Education Specialist and New Jersey Health Officer, she has 20+ years as a registered environmental health specialist. Employed with the Somerset County Health Department (NJ) since 2009, she has extensive involvement in emergency preparedness and response, food safety and outbreak prevention, public health analysis and health communications. She is recipient of a Special Citation from the FDA Commissioner for her educational work to reduce foodborne illness in the United States, and also for her efforts in maximizing collaborative efforts between federal, state, and local regulators. Currently she is overseeing the implementation of an FDA-funded food defense program, and is completing a thesis exploring the impacts of intergovernmental communications on foodborne outbreak threats and response.