European Affairs

EU Defending Food Chain Against Bio-Attack     Print
Isabelle Bénoliel

Isabelle BénolielSince 2002, there has been strong recognition worldwide of the existence of a genuine terrorist threat to the global food supply. However, this is not a new threat. There have been a number of deliberate attacks on food around the world over the years.

For example, in 1984, there was an attack on candies in Japan and another on salad bars in Oregon in the United States. In 2002, Chinese supplies of breakfast food were also targeted. Since 9/11, some evidence has been discovered in the Al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan which indicates that they have studied the idea of using specific agents to contaminate food supplies.

 

The food chain is an easy and vulnerable target, and a terrorist attack on food could have devastating consequences. One needs only to look at the destructive impact that natural outbreaks can have. In 1985, milk pathogens affected around 170,000 people in the U.S., while in 1991 clam pathogens affected around 300,000 people in China. A deliberate attack could very quickly, very easily, affect an enormous amount of people and have a huge cost for the economy.

The European Union, like the U.S. Government, takes this threat very seriously. But when it comes to protection, difficulties arise from the sheer complexity of our food systems and the variety of ways in which it is produced and distributed.

There are two basic pillars to our approach. The first is prevention and preparedness, i.e. bringing together the various elements which can help in preventing an outbreak or averting a crisis. This means controlling food production and imports, monitoring the food chain (including distribution), and ensuring health preparedness. The second pillar is the response undertaken once an outbreak has occurred. In this situation, the first point of action is human health protection. How ever, the strategy also has to provide for public information and actions to coordinate responder networks and law enforcement agencies.

Animal health is clearly an area of high potential vulnerability, as deliberate attempts can be made to introduce diseases into animal populations. The malicious introduction of a virus or contaminant in an animal could spark an international crisis by creating a major animal disease epidemic and/or a food safety problem. In such a scenario, the same defense mechanisms apply to a deliberate introduction of disease as to a conventional (i.e. accidental or natural) one. These mechanisms are early detection, the use of traceability systems, rapid control-and-eradication measures, contingency plans and overall coordination. A comprehensive and effective general safety system is an essential precursor to preparing for and responding to agro-terrorist attacks.

Any deliberate introduction of a disease would throw up complex risks and challenges. For example, a virus or an agent could be introduced in a number of locations, amplifying the impact. The challenge, therefore, is to prevent such a deliberate introduction and, if it occurs, to take swift and effective action to minimize the impact.

The European Commission and member states already have extensive experience in dealing with animal disease crises. There has been BSE or “mad cow disease,” foot-and-mouth disease and avian influenza, all of which prompted stricter controls and tighter mechanisms for the identification of animals and their movement.

The identification of animals is clearly, at this stage, a very valuable tool. In Europe, every cow, goat and sheep is identified through an ear-tag or a microchip. If there were to be an outbreak —deliberate or natural—this would prove crucial in isolating the farm and susceptible or affected animals. It would also help with the rapid eradication of the disease and the halt of its spread.

Another important tool is the control of imported animal products. A comprehensive system to minimize the risk of illegal imports of animal products has already been put in place. The legislative framework includes approval of third-country establishments, a system of certification for imports and mandatory checks at border inspection posts. Controls are also carried out by our Food and Veterinary Office. These measures ensure that our controls on imports are as tough as domestic controls.

On the basis of previous outbreaks, a large body of food safety laws was developed, which outlines the provisions in place to protect the entire food chain. These rules date back to 2002 and comprise of three main elements. Firstly, there is the general obligation for food operators to take all necessary measures to ensure that their products are safe for consumption. Secondly, there are legislative provisions for controls on food and feed by the border authorities. Finally, emergency measures, to be taken in case of a food safety threat, are laid out, and a rapid-alert system for food and feed has been established.

An important aspect of the 2002 legislation on general food safety is the distinction between risk assessment and risk management. Risk assessment—scientific and technical advice, scientific studies, etc.—is now carried out by the European Food Safety Authority (an agency partly comparable to the Food and Drug Administration in the U.S.), which is based in Parma, Italy. It is on the basis of this risk assessment that the European Commission takes political responsibility for the risk management. This distinction has proved crucial in ensuring that any actions taken in the event of a crisis are scientifically based, in addition to being politically responsible and legitimate.

Another element which is very important for both the food industry and consumers is traceability. It is obligatory for producers to withdraw unsafe food from the market and to provide accurate information to consumers. In order for them to be able to do this, there are provisions to ensure that the origin of farm animals, feed, ingredients and all food sources are known. Producers must be able to identify where and from whom they have received food or raw materials, as well as to whom they will sell or provide the product. This requirement relies on the “one step back, one step forward” approach. The same requirements apply to imports. Through this mechanism full traceability for every single animal food product on the market is ensured. As for fruit and vegetables, the traceability mechanism is established through labeling of the country of origin and producer. Usually these products are packaged on the site of production and they remain packed until their final distribution to consumers. It is therefore quite easy to trace back the origin of fruits and vegetables.

The situation is more difficult for goods which are sold in bulk - for example, cereals or sugar - because they are traced by batches and products are often mixed. In this case, there are some weaknesses and there might therefore be an increased risk.

Food systems are very complex—and so are the agents of potential harm. They include germs, toxins, chemicals and heavy metals that can be deliberately used to contaminate food sources. This contamination can be done on the farm, during feed- and food-processing, storage and transportation, in retail establishments or even in restaurants during food preparation. There are risks at every stage.

Once an outbreak or a crisis occurs, or when an attack has taken place, what should be done? The EU is a border-free space of 27 countries, throughout which materials, products, services and people can circulate freely.

It is crucial that mechanisms and arrangements are in place in the human health sector in case of an attack. Tracing the source of a deliberate release of a contaminant requires a multi-sector approach, which combines human and environmental epidemiological action with information from security services on an EU-wide scale.

In the aftermath of 2001, a health security committee was created within the EU, establishing a program of cooperation and preparedness in response to biological and chemical agent attacks. This committee aims at improving preparedness and response. A series of actions have been undertaken with focused objectives: to have a mechanism for information exchange and coordination, and to ensure EU-wide capability for detection, identification and surveillance of agents in laboratories.

Stocks of medicines are also being created at national level, but with an exchange of data between national health services (abiding by EU rules and guidance) and keeping links with third countries and international organizations.

The EU now has up to eleven rapid alert systems which were put in place in order to connect national systems in several sectors. Three of these rapid-alert systems are of particular interest here. The first is the rapid-alert system for food and feed that can transmit immediate information throughout the Union in cases where a particular food poses a risk to human health. Any member state that detects a pathogen in food sends this information to the European Commission, which circulates it to the 27 member states. On the basis of this information, an immediate decision to withdraw the product can be taken and the product can be removed from the market wherever necessary across the entire Union. This has proven to be a very efficient and useful tool.

The second system is a secure 24 hour/7 day-a-week rapid alert system for biological and chemical agent attacks (RAS-BICHAT). Established alongside the Health Security Committee, it ensures that there is a permanent contact point in the field of health within each member-state, which can be used in the event of a chemical attack.

The third system, and the newest mechanism, was created upon the request of the EU Heads of State and Government, following the Madrid and London bombings. It is a communication network which connects all of the services of the European Commission. This mechanism is called ARGUS and it applies to any sort of crisis, whether natural disasters (such as pollution threats) or terrorist attacks. In addition to linking up the Commission’s departments, ARGUS can connect to the relevant services of the member states. It also is a coordination tool which could draft and recommend decisions to be taken by our political authorities if necessary. That way, in the event of a crisis, immediate action would be taken at Commission level, political level and then at member state level.

At international level the Global Health Security Initiative was launched immediately after 9/11 by the G7-Plus. This group has continued to meet both at ministry level and at technical level. The Global Health Security Initiative is focussed on concerted global action to strengthen the public health response to an international biological, chemical or nuclear terrorism threat. Such an initiative is crucial for the exchange of information and for sharing knowledge and experience.

The EU has a well developed body of rules for crisis preparedness and response, and a contingency plan of action for both public health and business continuity. The main differences between a terrorist attack and an accidental event would be the dimensions of the initial phase and the number of primary outbreaks. But however the crisis begins, a sound and comprehensive food safety system is essential in order to effectively protect our citizens. The values and systems that were established in order to ensure safety throughout the whole food chain have functioned well so far, and continue to do so. They will be the cornerstone of further anti-terrorism measures that the EU intends to build.

Nevertheless, given that the Commission's goal is to have a comprehensive approach to biodefense, there is a need to go further than what has already been done or what is already planned for implementation. A consultation of European stakeholders will therefore be undertaken through a Green Paper on Bio-Preparedness and Food Defense, which should be published in spring 2007. The aim of the Commission Green Paper will be to stimulate a debate and launch a process of consultation at European level on how to reduce biological risks and enhance preparedness. The Commission expects that it will receive concrete feedback and ideas from stakeholders throughout Europe and even worldwide.

It is also the European Commission's aim to increase international cooperation on biodefense. Strengthening and increasing convergence would be the key words in our cooperation with third countries such as the United States—to share views, to share ideas, to share experience and to be as well prepared as possible on both sides of the Atlantic.

 

This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number 8, Issue number 1 in the Spring of 2007.