By Sheri L. Hernandez
Program Director, Hospitality Management at American Public University
Is the U.S. food and water supply appropriately protected? Based on research and opinion, the debate on this topic is always robust and interesting. A lot of the discussion focuses on recalls or food-borne illnesses, but from time-to-time, it expands into bioterrorism, or the risk of intentional contamination of the food or water supply, on both large and small scales.
In 1984, cult members in The Dalles, Oregon used a self-cultured pathogen to covertly contaminate restaurant salad bars with salmonella, causing a widespread outbreak. The goal was to cause enough illness in the community to prevent voter turnout so that the cult members could take over the local government.
The fact that this group was culturing harmful pathogens, likely with the intent to cause widespread harm, is a scary consideration indeed. Through the investigation, it was alleged that the salad bar was to be phase one of the plan, with phase two potentially involving contamination of the public water supply of The Dalles.
Since the terrorist attacks in 2001, greater attention has been given to the potential risk to food and water supplies. The Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act (Bioterrorism Act) was signed into law in June 2002. In addition to regulating the possession, use, and transfer of specific harmful toxins, this law also focuses on food and water supply and production.
Food safety is different than food security. Food safety typically refers to the proper storage, preparation, and serving of food and beverages. The focus is on reducing cross- contamination of raw and ready- to- eat foods and ensuring that potentially harmful foods are sufficiently cooked to reduce any harmful pathogens to safe levels. This of course is important, because without food safety, there is a high risk of foodborne illness
Food security, in contrast, deals more with ensuring that the food and water supply is safe, that when a consumer shops at a reputable grocery store, they can be confident that their purchases have been processed safely and not been intentionally contaminated. Security measures give confidence that the public water source is safe from intentional contamination that could cause illness. In short, food safety deals with accidents, while food security addresses intentional contamination.
The food industry has increased their focus on food security by implementing steps to ensure they are more aware of who their employees are, their product ingredients, and ensuring that their facilities are secure. Food processors need to monitor their entire supply chain, from farm through production and final delivery to the consumer. Threats and vulnerabilities in this supply chain need to be assessed and addressed.
The Bioterrorism Act resulted in regulations that require domestic and foreign facilities to register with the FDA, and the U.S. Government and private industry are cooperating to assess and minimize threats to the nation’s food supply. Public water companies are required to conduct assessments on the vulnerability of their systems to an intentional attack, obligating them to take a hard look at their physical assets and securing who has access to the water supply.
Bioterrorism encompasses much more than just intentional attacks on the food and water supply. Is the U.S. at risk? Yes, there is a threat. There are plenty of terrorist groups that want to cause harm. The size and scope of that threat is widely debated.
What can you do? As with any sort of threat, awareness is essential. There are steps taken to ensure the security of the food and water supply, but do your part. Learn about food safety rules and how to safely prepare food in your home to prevent a foodborne illness. Know where your food comes from. Check with your local water supplier to see their security reports. If you have a private well for water, have your water quality checked regularly. As with any other threat to our national security, if you see suspicious activity on a farm, in a store, in a restaurant or other public arena, call your local law enforcement who will involve Homeland Security when necessary.
About the Author
Sheri Hernandez is the program director for the American Public University System (APUS) Department of Hospitality Management-School of Business. She has extensive knowledge of restaurant operations, purchasing and training. She combines her skills as a restaurant manager with her career experience in financial commodity risk management, consulting, and purchasing to enable her to educate her students with a customer-focused, yet financially sound approach to hospitality management.