In the world of food safety and protection, Tommy Thompson, the former U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, is often over-quoted. When the Secretary resigned in 2004, he famously said, “For the life of me, I cannot understand why the terrorists have not attacked our food supply because it’s so easy to do.”
It’s a quotation to which officials at the University of Minnesota’s National Center for Food Protection and Defense often refer when speaking about the possibility of the nation coming under a food attack.
It’s not “if” there will be an attack, it’s “when,” the center’s director, Shaun Kennedy, said.
The NCFPD has been central to helping prepare the nation for an attack that officials say is sure to occur at some point.
Located within the College of Veterinary Medicine, the NCFPD was launched in 2004 as a Homeland Security Centers of Excellence — a university-based program designed for multidisciplinary research and education surrounding homeland security issues. The NCFPD addresses the vulnerability of the nation’s food system if an intentional attack by chemical or biological agents were to occur.
The success of the center depends largely on the partnership with industry and the involvement of graduate students and student researchers, Kennedy said.
“[Food] attacks are not a new concept … so it’s not really a question of, ‘Will there eventually be an attack’ — there will,” Kennedy said. “It’s, ‘How large-scale and what are we doing to minimize the consequences?’”
The NCFPD centers around five research “beams” — agent behavior, event modeling, system strategies, risk communication and education — that help researchers improve their ability to prevent and prepare for a possible attack.
The NCFPD has traditionally been involved in more common food outbreaks, such as salmonella in eggs or recalls.
Researching how to handle a smaller scale situation, such as a salmonella outbreak, helps the center create models and simulations to study to prepare for a national or global attack, said Dennis Degeneffe of the Food Industry Center, which is sponsored by the NCFPD.
There are many ways an attack to a farm could reach all the way to the consumer, Degeneffe said. Examples could include the contamination of bulk storage tanks, food transportation systems or even stores.
While researchers agree that the threat level is “not at zero,” it is safe to say that the nation is better prepared than it was 10 years ago, said Joseph Scimeca, senior director of global regulatory and scientific affairs with Cargill Inc.
Scimeca leads the Industry Workgroup for the NCFPD, which is made up of food industry officials and public health leaders who offer their expertise, guidance and feedback.
The ability to bring together businesses that would otherwise be competitors is very unique, Scimeca said.
“We have companies like McDonalds and Burger King, Wal-Mart and Target,” he said, “and that’s the reason why we have been successful.”