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Watching What You Eat

Minnesota Researchers Think About How to Prevent Food Sabotage

That cheeseburger you just ordered: where did it come from? Where was it made? Are you sure it’s safe to eat?

How about that pickle on top? And the lettuce, the tomato, and the onion?

We usually don’t think about food safety until we’re asked to, or forced to. Maybe a health warning comes in from the CDC, or news hits about an outbreak of E. coli or salmonellae.

Bacterial and other kinds of food-borne illness outbreaks often happen by accident, with slipups in food safety and preparation. But researchers at the National Center for Food Protection and Defense (NCFPD) are also thinking about the possibility that the food supply could be sabotaged—contaminated on purpose with biological, chemical, or even radiological agents.

It’s happened before. In 1984, for instance, a cult contaminated a restaurant salad bar, causing more than 750 illnesses, and in 1996, a lab technician poisoned a dozen coworkers with laced pastries. NCFPD is helping to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

As a DHS Center of Excellence based at the University of Minnesota, NCFPD helps governments and companies guard against food contamination, both accidental and intentional. The center’s slate of scientists and experts has developed innovative modeling technologies that simulate where and when food is produced and distributed, from the farm to the dinner table. These technologies also assess the interstate transportation of food, as well as the many imports from around the globe.

This is no small task. According to NCFPD, there are an estimated 2.1 million farms in the United States, plus about 30,000 food-processing sites, 19,000 food packers, and well over a million retail stores and outlets. That doesn’t include the foreign farms and production sites that contribute to food in America. These all feed into a complex trading network, reaching coast to coast and around the world.

However, NCFPD has a valuable ingredient to success: breaking through fears about giving away trade secrets, the center has convinced large food manufacturers and suppliers to share their proprietary data about how much food is made and where it is sent. NCFPD keeps a close hold on this information, applying it to build true-to-life scenarios that show, for example, how E. coli can quickly spread from the meatpacking plant to the frozen food aisle.

“We have a lot of close collaboration with industry,” said Dr. Frank Busta, Director Emeritus and Senior Science Advisor at NCFPD. “They’ve volunteered their information and assistance to both protect the public and avoid the economic consequences of an outbreak.”

A major NCFPD project is the Consequence Management System, which uses advanced computer models to predict, track, and then react to contamination incidents (see the screenshots). Developed by BT Safety, a small firm based in Eden Prairie, Minn., the system can be used in the event of an incident to help DHS and other Federal and state agencies—and the food companies involved—to pinpoint the origin of the contamination in addition to the potential extent of the illnesses that could result from it. The models can assist, too, with the coordination of efforts to alert the public and contain the outbreak.

Another major NCFPD project is the Food and Agriculture Sector Criticality Assessment Tool. While still in the design and testing phase, the tool “provides a means of capturing what is truly critical in the food and agriculture sector,” said Shaun Kennedy, the Director of NCFPD. “Knowing what is critical is a prerequisite for effectively identifying those things that need further protection.” Developed in partnership with the National Center for Foreign Animal and Zoonotic Disease Defense, based at Texas A&M University, the tool is now in the hands of a growing number of state agencies that would be affected by an intentional attack.

“A lot of states go by different rules, so this is a common way to determine vulnerabilities and make priorities,” said John Hoffman, a senior research fellow at NCFPD who works with both DHS’s S&T Directorate and its Office of Health Affairs.

More than 30 states are field-testing the assessment tool and working with companies to encourage their participation, and many of those states are even looking to consider the tool as a formal part of their homeland security strategy, Hoffman said. Some insurance companies are also starting to take notice, recognizing the tool’s potential for limiting corporate liabilities. “This is turning into a huge success story,” he said.

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Last Published Date: March 15, 2013
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