There’s a lot of talk in the produce industry about food safety. But there’s growing concern that a related topic — security of the facilities where fruits and vegetables are produced, processed or packed — is not receiving the attention it got immediately after the events of 9/11.
“I think much of the produce industry is blissfully ignorant of the risks,” said Walter Ram, vice president of food safety at The Giumarra Cos., Los Angeles.
Granted, there haven’t been any major incidents involving deliberate contamination of food supplies, but security experts call for diligence and preventive action nonetheless.
Awareness is job one when it comes to food defense, which Ram said is the appropriate nomenclature for what previously had been referred to as “food security.”
(Today, organizations like the World Health Organization and the United Nations refer to food security as assurance of adequate food supplies, especially for at-risk populations in poverty-stricken regions, he said.)
“How can you defend against a threat that you don’t know exists?” Ram asked.
Bob Whitaker, chief science and technology officer for the Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association, defines food safety as “unintentional contamination that could have health consequences,” while food “security (or defense) deals with intentional contaminations designed to have public health ramifications.”
Talk about precautions like fencing off fields and monitoring planes flying overhead was rampant after 9/11, he said.
“Once we began to step back and understand the dynamics of intentional contamination, it became pretty obvious that produce would not be a likely (target) for anyone wishing to do harm,” he said.
Experts agree that food defense threats exist, but they’re far more likely to come from disgruntled employees than Al Qaeda terrorists.
Other possible incentives for intentional contamination include economically motivated adulteration, which is meant to increase the value of a product, issue-oriented attacks, which are efforts to damage an industry or company without killing innocent people, or even extortion, Ram said.
Using common sense and adopting good business practices to maintain control of your operation are keys to good food defense, said Gale Prince, chief executive officer, president and founder of Sage Food Safety Consultants LLC, Cincinnati.
The food defense threat level probably is at a high point when you fire a disgruntled employee, he said.