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Diplomacy to Advance Food Defense

Marc L. Ostfield, Ph.D., Senior Advisor for Bioterrorism, Biodefense, and Health Security
Remarks to 6th Global Food Safety and Quality Conference
Chicago, IL
August 1, 2007


It’s a pleasure to be here today to talk about food defense and, in particular, the importance of diplomacy and international cooperation and collaboration to protect the food supply from intentional contamination.

As you know well, our 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. The recent melamine in pet food situation, for example, makes us all the more aware of how far and wide food-related items are distributed or the extent to which they are processed. Furthermore, as we know, characteristics of certain foods may make them more attractive targets because contamination of those foods increases the potential number of people impacted. Fortunately, while the food supply and distribution system are soft targets, there are many steps nations can and have taken individually and collectively to harden these targets and better enhance national and international food defense.

Today, I’d like to talk about some of the ways we are approaching international cooperation in food defense – and then some of the international issues for your consideration as industry and academia working on food defense.

Distinguishing between Food Defense, Food Safety, and Food Security

Before I go further with my remarks, it’s important at this juncture to clarify the terminology we use. For those of us working on foreign policy, words are our primary tools. As such, the language we choose to describe what we do becomes critically important. As you know well, there are some seemingly similar terms used to refer to protecting the food supply against intentional contamination. But, each of the terms means something fairly different – and the use and misuse of the various terms can and does cause confusion.

FOOD DEFENSE refers to resiliency -- 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 premises for suspicious activity, or locking storage facilities), Personnel Security (screening employees, and use of name badges, and Operational Security (monitoring production to prevent sabotage, and use of tamper-evident packaging).

This concept of Food Defense is, however, distinct 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 (i.e., reliability). Control strategies to enhance food safety can also be distinct from those involved in food defense and include: risk management strategies such as Good Agricultural Practices (GAP); Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP); good hygiene practices (GHP)/Sanitation Standard Operating Procedures (SSOP); and Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points (HACCP) to prevent or reduce microbial, chemical, or physical contamination.

Finally, Food Defense is also distinct from Food Security which 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.” In other words, Food Security is a concept that is often discussed in terms of dealing with famine or other national or international food shortages (i.e., sufficiency).

Many have used these terms interchangeably and often erroneously -- creating confusion during both national and international policy discussions. The focus today is on Food Defense and, in particular, on the ways in which it is an international issue with global impact.

Food Defense – What is the Issue?

There is a genuine terrorist threat to the global food supply, both at the production and processing stages. Evidence indicates that terrorist groups have considered the food supply as a target for bioterrorism. Before the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, many attacks were perpetrated using food products with the express purpose of extortion, corporate sabotage, terrorism, political influence, destruction of brand or company image, and/or destruction of an economic sector. Materials discovered at Al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan show knowledge of specific agents that could be used to contaminate the food supply (their sources, maintenance, growth and toxicity) and the potential of the food supply as a means of distributing those agents for maximum harm.

As you are well aware, the food supply is a relatively soft target offering many points at which it could be deliberately contaminated: It is mass produced and rapidly distributed worldwide. Contamination could cause morbidity or mortality on a global scale; some foods are more attractive targets because their contamination would reach even larger numbers of people; vulnerable food products include those that are mixed during production to allow uniform distribution of an agent throughout the product; those with a short shelf-life, increasing the chance that the food will be consumed prior to detection of contamination; those that are easily accessible to a terrorist (e.g., open access to food production facilities, or unlocked trucks, etc.); and those that are made in large batches allowing great volumes to be contaminated at one time.

Furthermore, a number of agents could be used to contaminate food, ranging from microbial agents typically seen in unintentional outbreaks of foodborne illness, pathogenic organisms not normally associated with food consumption, to organisms that have been genetically modified to be more lethal, to biologically derived toxins, to highly toxic chemical agents.

Incidents Worldwide

It’s clear from the historical evidence that the food supply presents an appealing target to those who would wish to cause harm to human health, economic well being, or sociopolitical stability. The deliberate contamination of the food supply is neither a new nor novel threat. Throughout history, we have seen episodes of intentional contamination sicken many individuals; and we’ve seen these episodes not necessarily with the intent to kill, but rather, to cause economic loss – including deliberate contamination of Israeli citrus in 1978, the Rajneeshee contamination of salad bars in Oregon in 1984, contaminated candy in Japan that same year, poisoned fast food in China in 2001 and 2002, and deliberately contaminated ground beef in a supermarket in Michigan in 2003. These are only a few examples of deliberate attacks; importantly, it is believed that other attacks with more limited impact may go undetected.

A deliberate attack on food could and would be devastating, especially if a dangerous agent were used. If one looks at accidental or other unintentional incidences of contamination, it is not hard to extrapolate the extent of damage from a deliberate attack.

The Economic Impact

By now, we are all familiar with last year's E. coli O157:H7 outbreaks from contaminated spinach, leading to a national recall in the U.S. In total, 26 states were affected, more than 200 people were sickened, and 3 people died. And the impact of this incident was international in scope. Like the U.S., Canada, for example, ended up advising consumers not to eat U.S. spinach. By some estimates, this outbreak may have cost up to $74 million. Even a rumor or hoax can have a significant impact, as we saw several years ago when rumors surfaced about Foot and Mouth Disease in Kansas. That rumor resulted in an estimated $50 million loss.

Thus, in addition to the public health impacts of intentional food contamination, the economic consequences could also be staggering. An attack on the food supply would only have to sicken or kill a few individuals to have far reaching and substantial economic consequences, including direct costs for response to an attack, disruption of food distribution, trade restrictions, long-term loss of consumer confidence, and ultimately, loss of market-share to a competing company or nation. Any of these consequences might carry a heavy economic and political toll.

Though the direct and indirect costs associated with food sabotage are difficult to fully track or anticipate, reports from unintentional contamination incidents are important indicators of the possible economic consequences if a large-scale deliberate event were to occur. USDA, for example, estimates that food-borne illnesses linked to just five pathogens cost the U.S. economy $6.9 billion annually. The psychological effects on consumer behavior as a result of fear and anxiety over the possibility of a contaminated food product (loss in consumer confidence) can also have a ripple effect on other aspects of the economy.

U.S. National and International Food Defense Efforts

To begin making the food supply system less attractive to a potential terrorist, the U.S. has begun taking many proactive steps – and you are hearing about many of them at this conference, including the use of the CARVER+Shock methodology, and the implementation of the Strategic Partnership Program Agroterrorism (SPPA).

In addition to this work within the U.S., we have also begun raising the issue of Food Defense internationally. In my international travels, I often hear skepticism about U.S. perceptions of the threat of bioterrorism or of the needed actions. 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 respective national threat assessments will influence the kinds of international programs put in place to defend against bioterrorism.

Fortunately, we have found that Food Defense is often the exception to this international skepticism. When raising food defense and agroterrorism issues, officials overseas seem to “get it” and often indicate that they share the same concerns, probably because of the potential widespread consequences to an economy and the supporting infrastructure. Many countries have also had problems with unintentional contamination of food supplies, so they understand some of the consequences already.

In 2004, the U.S. introduced bioterrorism onto the agenda for the G8 leaders, leading to the G8 leaders’ statement that year covering the issue of “Defending Against Bioterrorism.” One component of that work articulated by G8 leaders was to increase protection of the global food supply. 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. Last year, for the first time ever, all 21 APEC economies signed onto a U.S.-Australia-Chile co-sponsored Food Defense Initiative to “Mitigate the Terrorist Threat to the APEC Food Supply.” And earlier this year, officials from 15 APEC economies, as well as representatives from the private sector, met in Hanoi for the second step in the APEC process to strengthen food defense methodologies. We are now working with other APEC economies to further share strategies and develop and articulate APEC Food Defense Principles perhaps the first time a multilateral entity has attempted to tackle this critical counterterrorism issue.

Challenges to International Food Defense-Related Discussions

We face several key challenges when discussing food defense internationally -- looking at increased awareness, and at international collaboration in response to an event (whether real or hoax).

Overall, I find international colleagues, for the most part, to be receptive and enthusiastic to collaborate on food defense. At the same time, even among close allies, I have been surprised by some of the questions and concerns that international colleagues have raised. For example, proposing food defense collaboration can lead to the question “What do you know that I don’t?” The U.S. must often explain that, even in the absence of a specific threat to a particular food or area, we believe that putting the time, energy, and resources into food defense represents a prudent and precautionary contribution to all of our efforts to combat bioterrorism.

Additionally, sometimes international partners voice concerns (or, more often, hint at concerns) that collaborative work on Food Defense will affect cross-border trade -- somehow inadvertently creating unexpected trade restrictions or barriers.

In the event of a terrorist attack (or even a hoax), the international fallout could be substantial. As we all know, internal coordination for any government may often be particularly difficult in the midst of a crisis, especially if multiple ministries or sectors are involved as would be the case in the event of an attack on the food supply. We should imagine having to coordinate activities within not one, but multiple countries in response or mitigation. Bans on food imports, and the potentially permanent loss of markets, could be immediate impacts of such a situation. Furthermore, not being able to effectively coordinate a food defense response among multiple nations has the potential to create, in the short term, tension among trade partners, and over the longer term, lasting diplomatic tensions.

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 enough that it makes it difficult to get some countries to look beyond food safety concerns to protecting the food supply from deliberate contamination. Identifying the synergies between food defense and food safety will be critical to identify ways in which the needs may not be competing but may instead be interdependent strengthening mechanisms for both national protection and international cooperation.

Key Recommendations

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 – and I’m going to outline five recommendations in this area:

Strengthen public-private partnerships to address food defense. Much of the expertise and relevant infrastructure for food defense is in the private sector. Thus, your buy-in, leadership, and partnership are key to hardening the soft targets. The APEC Food Defense work, with industry participation, is illuminating ways in which governments and industry are interdependent. It is in everyone’s mutual interest to develop cooperative strategies to protect the food supply.

Multi-sectoral engagement is essential. Many government agencies, many different disciplines, and many parts of society play critical roles in defending against the terrorist threat to the food supply. Food defense efforts in the U.S. include coordination and collaboration among Agriculture, Health, Homeland Security, Intelligence, Environment, Trade, and Law Enforcement -- and also include substantial industry involvement.

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 nations involved are coordinating efforts. We need to begin by exchanging business cards, before the crisis, as the old cliché goes, and then work 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.

Communication is key. We must create, enhance, and promote effective risk communication strategies and practices for the general public (consumers), both domestically and internationally. Without such communication, governments and industry will have great difficulty mitigating the impact of a deliberate attack on the food supply as the crisis unfolds. The public will need to make sense of random and terrifying events, but attacks on food may elude quick and easy explanation – presenting an unprecedented challenge for policymakers both nationally and internationally. In addition, frank, open, and transparent dialogue between nations will also be critical when we address any potential impacts on trade.

Information sharing is vital, particularly when a nation suspects a potential threat to the food supply and distribution system although we all know that many governments are reluctant to be forthcoming with information when confronted with a crisis. 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 that could indicate a bioterrorist attack and the ability to rapidly share 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 proactively about protecting the food supply from deliberate contamination and are identifying 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.

Key Questions for Consideration

I’d like to leave you with three sets of questions and issues for your consideration during this conference. First, what are ways that academia and industry can motivate and develop international collaboration on food defense issues? What do we need to know about the global distribution of the food supply and what aspects will encourage and compel other nations to take action? Where are the natural synergies between nations? What are the obstacles to cross-border cooperation, and what should researchers, industry, and government be doing to address those obstacles?

Second, what are the potential roles for the private sector in the discussion about food defense, and what are effective mechanisms to stimulate private sector engagement? Are there effective strategies to “incentivize” voluntary adoption of food defense practices, and what are some of the lessons we may learn from similar endeavors in the past, from other security practices, or from collaboration with other industries?

What are the implications of food defense strategies for international trade? It's clear that there are linkages and potential impacts. What kind of efforts will ensure that enhanced food defense does not interfere with continued and growing global commerce? What are the ways to make these efforts complementary and not conflicting?

These are just some of the ways we look to you to inform and influence the policy work we do, both domestically and internationally. The results of your efforts provide us with the strategies and the tools to make a difference in our relations globally. Thank you again for this opportunity to talk about a vision for international cooperation on food defense.

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