Processors Respond to Warnings of Terrorist Attack on Food Supply

SPRINGDALE, Ark. -- With the threat of a terrorist attack on the nation's food supply a possiblity, business executives in charge of Arkansas' food processing industry say they have strengthened security efforts in response to heightened anti-terror regulations.

Many members of the Ozark Food Processors Association are bolstering surveillance efforts, employee training and product tracking systems to protect the nation's food supply from a terrorist attack.

Companies like Springdale-based Tyson Foods Inc., the world's largest meat producer, and Allen Canning Co. of Siloam Springs took notice of a presentation by food-security specialist Rod Wheeler last month. He began his talk at the Ozark Food Processors Association meeting by flashing a quote on an overhead screen from former U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson:

"For the life of me, I cannot understand why the terrorists have not attacked our food supplies, because it is so easy to do."

Wheeler followed that arresting image by telling processing company representatives that he has been able to walk into several plants without showing any identification.

"All I needed was a vial of ricin to dump in there," he said.

But the U.S. Department of Agriculture has been regulating food processors and already have protections from disease and contamination in place. Government regulations have become tougher since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, said Michael Roberts, director of the National Agricultural Law Center at the University of Arkansas.

"There is a great deal more communication and interaction and cooperation that goes on now between the government agencies that have responsibility for food security," he said.

The security arms of the Food and Drug Administration and the USDA now have weekly conference calls with the Department of Homeland Security, Roberts said.

Tyson spokesman Gary Mickelson said the company's processing plants take security measures that go beyond the new federal regulations.

"In addition to USDA inspectors, we have our own quality assurance team to monitor product quality and safety," he said. "We employ security officers at our processing plants to monitor the people and vehicles entering and leaving our property. We also place seals on trailer loads to make sure no one tampers with the product being shipped."

Allen Canning, meanwhile, has met the regulators' requirements and hired their own security consultants, said James Phillips, vice president of corporate services.

"In a lot of cases, it's been very helpful," he said.