European Affairs


Biodefense: U.S. Vision of Broader Cooperation     Print Email
Marc L. Ostfield

Marc L. OstfieldOur food supply and distribution system is global in nature and poses a relatively soft target offering many points at which it could be deliberately contaminated. Fortunately, there are many steps nations can and have taken individually and collectively to harden these targets and better enhance national and international food defense.

But first some definitions. The term Food Defense encompasses the steps taken to minimize or mitigate the threat of deliberate contamination of the food supply, and includes identifying points of vulnerability and working to strengthen infrastructure, thereby, making the food supply a less attractive and, more importantly, less vulnerable target. Controls in support of Food Defense include physical security—monitoring the premises for suspicious activity, or locking chemical storage facilities; personnel security— screening employees, use of name badges; and operational security—monitoring production to prevent sabotage, use of tamper-evident packaging.

This is different from Food Safety, which focuses on setting standards for industry regarding the safety of food, good manufacturing practices, quality control of agricultural products, and promotion of trade in food products. Controls to enhance food safety can also be distinct from those involved in food defense and include: risk management strategies best practices in agriculture, manufacturing, hygiene and sanitation —as well as standard operating procedures (including HACCP or Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points) to prevent or reduce microbial or chemical or physical contamination.

Food Security is defined by the World Health Organization and others as “when all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life.”

The issue in Food Defense is that there is a genuine terrorist threat to the global food supply, both at the production and processing stages. Evidence suggests that terrorist groups have considered the food supply as a target, as a number of incidents in the last 20 years confirm.

A deliberate attack on food could and would be devastating, not just for health and safety, but in terms of social and economic impacts. The recent E. coli outbreaks from contaminated spinach, led to a national recall in the U.S.; 26 states were affected, 204 people were sickened, and 3 people died. And the impact of this incident was international in scope. Like the U.S., Canada ended up advising consumers not to eat U.S. spinach. By some estimates, this outbreak may cost up to $74 million. Even a rumor or hoax can have a significant impact, as we saw in 2001 when rumors surfaced about Foot and Mouth Disease in Kansas. That rumor resulted in an estimated $50 million loss.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that food-borne illnesses linked to just five pathogens cost the U.S. economy $6.9 billion annually. The accumulating effects of a deliberate attack would be even greater—including political fallout. In the UK, for example, mad cow disease resulted in the creation of a new food regulation authority.

To begin making the food supply system less attractive to a potential terrorist, the U.S. has begun taking many proactive steps.

• At the national policy level, Homeland Security Presidential Directive/ HSPD9 established a national policy to defend the agriculture and food system against terrorist attacks, major disasters, and other emergencies.

• The Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act of 2002 (usually referred to as The Bioterrorism Act) established national provisions to inspect food offered for import at ports of entry into the U.S, with the greatest priority given to inspections to detect the intentional contamination of food.

• Vulnerability assessments—the U.S. Departments of Agriculture, Homeland Security, the Department of Health and Human Services' Food and Drug Administration, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation are working closely together with the private sector to identify the most critical nodes or vulnerabilities along the food supply and production system.

• Surveillance—the U.S. has established individual diagnostic laboratory networks which monitor human, animal, and plant health, as well as the food and water supplies. These individual networks are now working together under the Integrated Consortium of Laboratory Networks, or ICLN and play a significant role in monitoring the food supply as it moves from “farm to fork.”

• Working with private industry—U.S. agencies have issued new industry guidance on security measures, and have encouraged specific additional industry security measures in response to the increased threat level.

• Intelligence gathering/Information sharing—The Strategic Partnership Program Agroterrorism (SPPA) initiative is a close collaboration between the inter-agency partners mentioned above. One of its goals is to gather information to enhance existing tools that both USG and industry employ as well as provide stakeholders with comprehensive reports including warnings and indicators, key vulnerabilities, and potential mitigation strategies.

We have also begun raising the issue of Food Defense internationally. The degree to which bioterrorism is seen to be a significant security threat affects our individual and collective willingness to invest resources in biodefense. And the nature of each other's threat assessment will help structure the kinds of programs put in place to defend against bioterrorism. But we have found that Food Defense is often an exception to international unanimity.

In 2004, the U.S. introduced bioterrorism to the G8 agenda, leading to a statement covering the issue of “Defending Against Bioterrorism.” In 2005, G8 nations built on this policy foundation and put together some of the first-ever international technical and policy events looking at initial steps in food defense. Taking this work even further, at U.S. initiative, the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum has enthusiastically embraced the Food Defense issue.

There are some substantial challenges to international discussions related to food defense. While we found colleagues overseas to be receptive to collaboration on food safety, we have been somewhat surprised by the kinds of questions we hear from international colleagues when we are talking about food defense. The first question is: why are you so worried about this? We explain that even in the absence of a specific threat to a particular food or system at a particular time, we believe that putting the time, energy and resource into food defense represents a prudent contribution to our overall efforts to combat bioterrorism as well as to provide protection against unintentional food contamination.

Additionally, in international discussions, it is important to recognize the ways that implementing new or enhanced food defense measures might affect various components of the food industry, especially small and medium enterprises. At the APEC Food Defense workshop in Bangkok in November 2006, for example, some participants representing both the public and private sectors were concerned about ways that possible enhanced regulation and oversight could affect the global trade in food and agriculture. Some multinational companies as well as the largest exporters are already paying attention to the political landscape in countries to which they are exporting and understanding that Food Defense is a legitimate concern for governments. Small and medium enterprises must begin to address these same concerns to remain competitive in the global marketplace.

In the event of a terrorist attack (or even a hoax), international cooperation is liable to be challenging, with the potential to create, in the short term, tension among trade partners, and over the longer term, lasting diplomatic tensions.

Prevention of and response to an international food contamination event in Europe poses challenges different from those in any other region of the world, due to the role of the European Union in cross-border coordination. The EU's role has been rigorously tested by real-life events such as BSE and avian influenza. On some issues, the added layer of coordination and regulation by the EU can save lives and protect economic interests. Perhaps there are lessons for the rest of the world to learn from the EU's ability to coordinate food defense work across borders. It is also possible that there are ways that the EU can leverage its ability to coordinate across nations to be even more effective on food defense issues.

One final challenge to stimulating and continuing this international dialogue is that of competing priorities. Food Defense, prudent as it may be, is simply not high on the agenda for some nations. For some countries, food safety issues are perceived as a more significant concern making it difficult to look beyond food safety concerns and see the need to protecting the food supply from deliberate contamination. It is important to identify the synergies between food defense and food safety that can help nations address the multi-faceted nature of these threats.

There are a number of ways that nations and the international community can work together to address the challenges of food defense and international cooperation:

• Strengthen public-private partnerships to address food defense. Much of the expertise and relevant infrastructure for food defense is in the private sector. Thus, their buyin, leadership, and partnership are crucial to hardening the soft targets.

• Multi-sectoral engagement is essential. Many government agencies, many different disciplines, many parts of society all play critical roles in defending against the terrorist threat to the food supply. In addition to working with national entities within the U.S., systems must also ensure that local authorities such as law enforcement or public health are equally involved.

• “Translate” this multi-sectoral engagement into cross-border cooperation. In the event of an attack on the food supply requiring an international response, it will be imperative that all sides—and all nations involved— are equally coordinating their efforts. We need to be working now to develop, promote, and conduct regular transnational, multi-sectoral training courses and exercises on preventing, preparing for, containing, and responding to attacks on the food supply. Due to the existence of the EU, in some respects Europe is ahead of the world on this issue.

• Communication is the key. First, we need to create and enhance effective risk communication to the general public (consumers), both domestically and internationally. Frank, open, and transparent dialogue between nations will also be critical addressing any potential impact on trade, as well as handling the crisis as it unfolds.

• Information-sharing is vital, particularly when a nation suspects a potential threat to the food supply and distribution system. Thus, we need to be working now to strengthen national and international abilities to identify and quickly detect unusual disturbances in the farm-to-fork continuum which could indicate a bioterrorist attack and the ability to rapidly share that information with appropriate national and international policymakers.

Fortunately, if I may use an agricultural metaphor, we are starting to see international food defense cooperation efforts bear fruit. Thanks to food defense initiatives like those within the G8 and APEC, nations are talking to each other in a productive manner about protecting the food supply from deliberate contamination— and are working to identify ways to collaborate. As governments, we are also starting to see the private sector —at least the very largest multi-national firms—begin to incorporate food defense practices around the globe.


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