A new joint effort of the Food Marketing Institute, Washington D.C., and the Federal Bureau of Investigation could help keep U.S. food supplies safe — and protect the industry from false alarms and the hysteria they can produce.

The food industry is the latest to form, in cooperation with the FBI, an Information Sharing and Analysis Center. FMI reached an agreement with the government in February to staff the center in its Washington office. Similar centers are up and running in six other industries: oil and gas, electric power, banking and finance, information technology, telecommunications and water.

Tom Stenzel, president and chief executive officer of United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association, Alexandria, Va., met with FMI officials in March to discuss the role of the program in the fresh produce industry. After the talks, United signed an agreement to partner with FMI in the program.

“For the fresh produce industry, one of the most important roles this can serve is to help separate credible threats from hoaxes,” Stenzel said. “We think it’s a very good idea.”

The program works on two fronts.

One, people who witness possible illegal activity — someone lurking around a processing plant, or tampering with product in a store, for instance — can report it to the program via a protected e-mail account. That information is then sent to the FBI.

The process protects the confidentiality of the person or business reporting the problem, Stenzel said

The program also works from the opposite end: If the FBI learns of threats against, say, processors of fruits and vegetables, it can e-mail businesses through FMI and partners like United to warn them of the threats in confidence.

Stenzel cited one example in which the system could have been used to good effect. After the anthrax scares last fall, many reports were received of white powder found on or near food in grocery stores. But no anthrax was ever found, and Stenzel said the industry and the public could have benefited from the quick, sensitive attention to the problem the agreement between FMI and the FBI is intended to provide.

More recently, a captured Al Qaeda leader warned that terrorists might be plotting an attack on a U.S. shopping center or supermarket. A bulletin on the threat, issued on April 23 by the FBI to its field offices, was not intended to be made public, and Bush administration officials cautioned that the source of the information was unreliable.

“There are instances where the FBI wants to get information out to the industry but doesn’t want the information made public,” Stenzel said. “Public confidence in fresh produce is an absolute must, so we’re pleased to be working with our retail partners at FMI so that retailers can have confidence that their fruit and vegetable suppliers are ahead of the curve on these issues.”