(Feb. 27)LONG BEACH, Calif. — Though related, food safety and food security programs are not the same thing and need to be treated differently.

That’s the word from Jennifer Thomas, an epidemiologist with the Food and Drug Branch of the California Department of Health Services.

Growers should develop a confidential operational risk management program for food security, Thomas told a lunch crowd at the Feb. 24 Food Safety and Security Conference, part of United 2003.

This plan, also called an Operational Risk Management, is a good complement for Good Agricultural Practices and Hazards Analysis and Critical Control Points programs, but it should be kept separate and confidential, Thomas said.

ORMs help growers and shippers identify hazards in farming or distributing operations where food may be deliberately tampered with; assess, analyze and rank the risks; and implement risk controls.

In countering food security risks, food handlers need to keep in mind that they are dealing with the intentional tampering — via biological or chemical agents — with food in order to harm as many people as possible and destabilize society.

The American food supply is vulnerable to attack in part because its largest businesses are so successful, she said. With family farms decreasing, the country has taken large amounts of food and production and concentrated them in small areas.

"Being watchful and having good surveillance on farms is important," Thomas said.

The primary goal of food security is to reduce the threat of foodborne hazards to the greatest extent, said morning speaker Robert Brackett, director of food safety for the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, College Park, Md.

The FDA has conducted threat assessments to help develop an ORM, he said.

Much of the program involves maintaining a safe water supply and keeping unauthorized personnel away from chemicals used in processing or packing plants. Keeping cabinets locked and watching operations with security cameras are part of managing risk.

In addition, produce companies must keep a close watch on the increasing amounts of imported fruits and vegetables, Brackett said.

“We have many new inspectors placed at the borders,” Brackett said.

Retailers also face the risk of food tampering and bioterrorism. That spurred the West Sacramento-based Raley’s Supermarkets chain to develop an internal audit system for the fruits and vegetables it buys.

Information includes the date the product arrived, where it was packed, where it was harvested and the temperature at which it was shipped.

“If something should happen, we want to trace it back as quickly as possible,” said speaker James Clark, director of communications and public affairs for Raley’s. “It makes good business sense.”

Another food-related vulnerability is that the U.S. has a passive surveillance system for food outbreaks. Health agencies rely on people to report problems at hospitals, and less than 8% of sick people seek medical care, Thomas said. Complicating things even more is the fact that microbes are gaining in number and becoming more virulent, she said.
--additional reporting by staff writer Chuck Harvey