Is the American food supply vulnerable to a terrorist attack? It's a question that has crossed many minds since the onslaught on September 11 and the anthrax mailings that have followed. The Bush administration has repeatedly warned that the food supply could be a target. But, reassuringly, experts say it would be hard to infect enough food to cause a large-scale health threat.
"To do something through the food to kill or make large numbers of people ill would be very difficult," says Dr. Lester Crawford, Director of the Center for Food and Nutrition Policy at Virginia Tech University and a member of FoodFit's Advisory Board.
"But it's possible to induce local calamities. It's something that we have to be vigilant about because some of the organisms allegedly being cultivated are very dangerous indeed. So we have to out think the terrorists, which is a new thing for all of us," he says.
Beefing up Security
The government and the food industry are going all out to protect America's food. Companies are putting in controls and biological and bio-terrorism safety programs. "The food industry is nearly ready for any eventuality," says Crawford.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) says its inspectors are on heightened alert in airports, ports and food processing plants. In addition, President Bush has asked Congress for $45 million to strengthen USDA's bio-security measures. The department has set up a special web page to update the public on its doings.
"We stand readyand are making sure that we are prepared, coordinated, and able to respond should we ever face an emergency," says Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman.
Potentially deadly, foodborne super bugs like Salmonella and E.coli 0157:H7 are causing sleepless nights for food safety experts. Until the anthrax attacks, the only known biological strike here was in 1984, when members of a religious cult in Oregon contaminated salad bars with salmonella, making over 700 people ill.
Fortunately, consumers can protect themselves from bacteria like E.coli 0157:H7 and Salmonella by washing fruits and vegetables thoroughly and making sure to cook meat and poultry completely. (Use FoodFit's Cook It Safe Calculator to tell when dinner's done.)
Highly contagious livestock diseases like the dreaded foot-and-mouth disease, which recently devastated cattle herds in Britain and parts of Europe, are another worry. Even before September 11, USDA had put the wheels in motion to nearly double the number of inspectors and teams of "Beagle Brigade" detection dogs at ports of entry.
Plus, the U.S. has crack veterinary pathologists who should be able to detect these diseases before there is a major outbreak, says Dr. Crawford.
Calls for Reform
Concern about the food supply has shone a spotlight on the hodgepodge of regulations that safeguard it. At the moment, at least a dozen federal agencies oversee our food, from the USDA to the Commerce Department. The new focus on food safety has given momentum to longstanding efforts to bring the system under one regulatory roof. On Capitol Hill, Senator Richard Durbin introduced legislation in October to set up a single, independent food safety agency.
"This country needs a modern food safety system that is prepared to handle the challenges and opportunities of the next century, " says the Illinois Democrat. "Today, food moves through a global marketplace. This was not the case in the early 1900s when the first federal food safety agencies were created. Throughout this century, Congress has responded by adding layer upon layeragency upon agencyto answer the pressing food safety needs of the day."
Durbin has support from numerous consumer groups and the congressional watchdog, the General Accounting Office, which says it's unlikely that long-lasting improvements in food safety will happen until food safety activities are consolidated under a single agency.