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.
In that case, he advises clients to take action like taking away facility access cards, “and do it pronto to avoid problems.”
“When risk involves intentional contamination of our food products, traditional security measures alone will never be sufficient,” Ram said, adding that there is no one-size-fits-all checklist for food defense.
Each operation must address its own issues, he said, but common food defense tools include fences, locks, video surveillance, identification badges and alarm systems.
Take the same approach to implementing a food defense program as you would a food safety program, Whitaker advises. Make a diagram of your processes and conduct a risk analysis to determine where products can be contaminated and figure out how to manage that and make sure it doesn’t happen.
Here are some of his suggestions:
Make sure you know where your employees are and that they’re in the right places. Some processing facilities have color-coded helmets identifying workers in specific departments;
Keep chemicals under lock and key and accessible only to those who are certified and trained to use them;
Track the use of chemicals;
Park inbound and outbound trucks in different areas;
Verify what comes off each truck;
Have outward locking doors in processing plants; and
Limit the number of entrance points.
A key component of any food defense system is its food defense plan, Ram agreed.
“This plan should identify vulnerabilities and act on them,” he said.
Food defense plans should also include worker training and may include activities to deter, detect and respond to any threats that are likely to occur.
The plan should be kept private, he emphasized.
“Telling people about your food defense plan is showing them how to defeat it,” Ram said. “We don’t want to educate any would-be bad guys.”
Cyber attacks have become a more recent concern.
A company could be devastated if someone got into a computer system and wiped out customer data, Prince said. That’s why it’s important to change computer passwords when employees leave the company.
Today, social media have become another means disgruntled employees can take advantage of to harm a company or even an entire industry.
Someone could claim, for example, that he put a chemical in food at a processing plant or contaminated a specific product, even though he may be thousands of miles away, Prince said.
“Your biggest challenge is trying to prove a negative claim is wrong,” he said.
It’s a lot easier for a company to defend itself against such claims if its facilities are secure.
If a company can document that it has control programs in place, “you’ve got a pretty good chance of defending yourself,” he said.
However, if a company, for examples, stores chemicals in sheds with open access, “it’s hard to defend (against a fictitious claim) and say it didn’t happen.”
Asking a security consultant to review your operation is a good invesment, Prince said.
“It’s not that expensive to have somebody come in with a fresh set of eyes and take a look at what we’re doing and where we have exposures,” he said.
Simple modifications can be made without spending big dollars but that will have a significant impact on securing a facility and preventing problems, Prince said.
Where to find it
It’s impossible to effectively secure the entire supply chain, Ram said.
“We should defend against any threats that are likely to occur,” he said.
Many third-party auditors offer food defense addendums to food safety audits, Whitaker said.
Planning tools are available from the Food and Drug Administration, U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Homeland Security, Ram said. The Produce Marketing Association and United Fresh Produce Association can help too.