Experts: Shore up Food Chain Security

May 29, 2007
FDA workshop points to problems with security in processing plants, supply chain, retailers

Rod Wheeler was lurking in the raw ingredients room of a major food manufacturer, an unauthorized intruder just hoping to get caught.

When he wasn't, he knew there was a problem.

The investigator walked to the operations office, reported his intrusion and watched the plant manager turn livid.

"If anywhere in the food supply we are vulnerable, we are vulnerable everywhere," Wheeler said Thursday at the Advanced Food Defense Workshop held by the Food and Drug Administration and the University of Arkansas Department of Food Science in Fayetteville.

A former Washington homicide detective, Wheeler began a career in food security even before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, prompted nationwide fears about food terrorism.

Wheeler, a frequent contributor to cable TV's Fox News and MSNBC, joined government agents and other food-industry insiders Thursday to discuss how to prepare for a major food contamination in the United States caused by terrorists, bad businesses or upset employees.

"What we have to do, as industry and government, is work together to make sure that when the [Hurricane] Katrina of the food industry, when it hits - and it is going to hit one day - we can be prepared," Wheeler told a group of food-industry representatives and others at UA's Center for Continuing Education.

Over the years, Wheeler got in the habit of meandering through plants, dropping unidentified bags in hallways, and searching for every possible way to contaminate food. He visits about 10 plants a month in his food-defense role at Kansasbased AIB International.

"The good news that I do bring you today is that we have made significant progress in the United States in terms of food defense," Wheeler said.

David Arvelo, a small-business representative with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, agreed that some progress has been made but said much work remains.

Before Sept. 11, 2001, about 1 percent of food products coming into the United States was checked for contaminants. Efforts were doubled after the terrorist attacks, so about 2 percent of products get checked these days, he said.

Every part of the food chain has vulnerabilities - from the farm to the retailer, Arvelo said.

"We are trying to think like the terrorists, to predict where they are going to go, and then strengthen that position," he told the group Wednesday morning on the first day of the two-day conference.

The need for better detection was underscored earlier this year when cats and dogs began dying from pet food laced with melamine, a toxic chemical added to some food ingredients made in China.

The FDA will release a free software tool this year that uses a method originally developed for military leaders to root out vulnerabilities in the food chain. Still, some believe the government is failing to protect Americans.

"I think the American government is joined at the hip with these transnational corporations who are getting filthy-rich selling this Mickey Mouse stuff to the American people as a pig in a poke," said Fred Stokes of Porterville, Miss., executive director for the Organization for Competitive Markets, headquartered in Lincoln, Neb.

Stokes helped form the Coalition for a Prosperous America, which resists increased trade with China and seeks to diminish the U.S. trade deficit in the world.