What would you think of the following headlines in the United States? “More Than 75 Million People Struck Seriously Ill From Contaminated Food!” “More Than 325,000 Hospitalized!” “5,000 Dead From Foodborne Illness!” “Economic Impact, Including Pain and Suffering, Reduced Productivity and Medical Expenses Is $10-83 billion!”
Would you think that a major terrorist attack had taken place? These statistics aren’t hypothetical; they are real. The data comes from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and it represents what actually happens in the United States annually, due to illnesses that come just from mishandling of food.
With such inherent problems, how vulnerable is America to deliberate contamination of the food supply? You may recall the startling comment that Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson made in his resignation speech last year: “For the life of me, I cannot understand why the terrorists have not attacked our food supply, because it is so easy to do.”
As Asia learned from the bird flu scare, just the rumor of a problem can cause catastrophic losses to the economy.
George V. Hulme reported in Information Week magazine: “Al-Qaida training materials emphasize treating food-processing operations and attacking crops and livestock” (“Food Chain’s Fear Factor,” May 23, 2005). Government officials are concerned with contamination by such ailments as foot-and-mouth disease, the avian influenza, as well as the introduction of biotoxins.
U.S. authorities initially quashed, but later released a Stanford University report that criticized the Food and Drug Administration for being lax about restrictions on the food and drink industry. The report concluded that only 10 grams of botulinum toxin released into central milk storage tanks would be enough to poison nearly 500,000 people.
The report’s authors, Yifan Liu and Lawrence Wein, “estimated that if 50,000 people were poisoned it would cost the U.S. economy around $8.6 billion” (Chris Mercer, “Huge Costs of Terror Attack on U.S. Milk Supply,” NOVIS, April 7, 2005).
Two teaspoons would kill many thousands
Botulinum, a nerve toxin that produces paralysis, causes death in as many as 60 percent of those poisoned by it, or a staggering 300,000 fatalities with the above model of 10 grams of poison. It takes only 1 millionth of a gram to poison an adult.
How much is 10 grams? It is about the weight of two teaspoons of water. So it is a truly tiny amount and it could easily be added to the milk supply, if safeguards aren’t put in place to prevent it.
The scientists made a number of recommendations that they believe would prevent such a nightmare scenario, including “locking all tanks, trucks and silos when they’re not being drained or filled; [requiring] security checks for people who have access to pre-bottled milk” (Mercer). And two people would be present every time a valve is opened to transfer milk.
Finally, routine testing for contaminants could be conducted on each 5,500-gallon tank truck to ensure that nothing got through the security net. The cost of these safety measures would not be exorbitant (perhaps a few cents per gallon).
Tracking from farm to fork
Detailed record keeping is the principal strategy in securing the food chain “from farm to fork.” The U.S. “Track and Trace” law of 2002 “requires most every business in the U.S. food supply chain to keep detailed records on receipt and shipment of goods—where they come from, who they’ve been sent to, the lot numbers, and more—and to be able to supply that information four to eight hours after it’s requested. Other rules require companies to register food facilities and provide advanced notice of food shipments coming from abroad” (Hulme).
The EU has a similar law, which “entered into force in January 2002, laid down the general principles and requirements of food law, created the European Food Safety Authority and established procedures in matters of food safety.
• stipulates that the delivery of safe food and animal feeds belongs to the food and feed producers;
• specifies that foodstuffs, animal feed and feed ingredients must be traceable;
• includes clear procedures for developing food law and dealing with food emergencies;
• gives the Commission new powers to take emergency measures when national authorities are unable to contain an emerging food risk;
• establishes the Standing Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health, in the place of three previous Standing Committees, bringing together Member States representatives with important roles in decision-making on food safety issues” (“Food & Consumers,” March 5, 2004, EurActiv.com).
Large American food producers already have in place the resources that meet or can help them meet the U.S. law’s requirements. “But,” Hulme says, “as much as 75% of companies that touch the food supply chain still are managing their inventories with disconnected spreadsheets and paper documents …” They have a long way to go to comply with the law’s demand to be able to respond in a few hours to a request for a chain of custody on a particular food.
Food chain spans globe
Imported food represents unique challenges. It was to this category that HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson was referring when he said it would be easy for terrorists to attack the U.S. food supply.
The U.S. imports foods from a wide array of nations. For example, the U.S. imports green coffee, cocoa beans, fruits, vegetables, nuts, food oils, food oilseeds, teas and spices, fish and shellfish—even dairy products and eggs—from Indonesia (over $1 billion annually). America imports similar items from the following nations:
• Ethiopia, including more than $16 million in food oils and oilseeds.
• Turkey, including nearly $19 million in tea, spices and preparations.
• Spain, including more than $22 million in dairy products and eggs; $325 million in vegetables and preparations; more than $125 million in food oils and oilseeds.
• India, including $83 million in tea, spices and preparations.
• Serbia and Montenegro, including over $4 million in fruits and preparations—and even a small amount of dairy products and eggs.
• Bulgaria, including over $10 million in dairy products and eggs.
• Syria, including over a million dollars in dairy products and eggs.
• Pakistan, including $2.5 million in fruits and preparations, $3.4 million in tea, spices and preparations and $12.4 million in feedstuff and food grains.
• Kazakhstan, including approximately $1.6 million in fish and shellfish (as well as, by the way, $2.5 million in nuclear fuel and fuel materials).
• Iran, including $3.2 million in fruits and preparations and $6.7 million in fish and shellfish.
• Egypt, including $2.9 million in fruits and preparations, $5.3 million in vegetables and preparations, $7.9 million in tea, spices and preparations and $4.1 million in soft beverages, processed coffee, etc.
(Source for import statistics: U.S. Census Bureau).
The EU similarly trades around the world, absorbing approximately 85 percent of Africa’s agricultural exports and 45 percent of those from Latin America (http://europa.eu.int/comm/trade/issues/sectoral/agri_fish/agri/tp_en.htm). The EU proudly declares that it purposely trades with the least developed countries, importing mainly tropical products, cotton, fruits, vegetables and sugar.
The recent contamination of Worcester sauce by chili powder that had a known carcinogen in it (Sudan I) caused the largest food recall in the United Kingdom’s history, costing in the range of 200 million euros.
Clearly, the world is one large market, with global retail sales exceeding approximately $2 trillion annually (“Changing Supply-Chain Model Affecting Trade and Consumer Preferences in Global Food Market,” RNCOS, May 2005).
Such a large market, which includes many nations with unstable governments, some that harbor terrorists and some that sponsor terrorism, presents a monumental security challenge.
The Internet promises to be a key link in providing a chain of custody from farm to fork, even when that farm is half a world away from the fork that spears its produce. Radio frequency identification (RFID) is a technology that makes this possible. For example, ScoringSystem, a commercial software company, proposes that its unique coding “records activities and actions performed on the animals, fish, or crops at each location—even in the middle of a packing plant, or on board a factory ship, or in the middle of a farmer’s field, and all the way to the retailer and consumer” (“Internet System Locates Food Handler’s Along Supply Chain,” NOVIS, June 29, 2005).
Scoring System claims that a Web-based system would make security verification possible in just seconds. The potential Achilles’ heel to the entire enterprise is the susceptibility to failure of the Internet, such as through an electromagnetic pulse attack that we described in our previous issue, or simply the normal glitches that occur.
The concept of bioterrorism isn’t new, for Jesus used it as an illustration of a spiritual truth in His parable of the tares. When asked how the seed of a grain crop became contaminated, the farmer replies, “An enemy has done this” (Matthew 13:28 Matthew 13:28He said to them, An enemy has done this. The servants said to him, Will you then that we go and gather them up?
American King James Version×).
Is the food supply chain safe? Those who are responsible for its security say it is safer than it has ever been. But Mr. Thompson’s frank assessment conveys the hard truth: It is impossible to secure such a huge chain completely.
Food and food shortages will play a crucial role in the end of the age. Be sure to request our reprint “The Horsemen of Revelation.” You can request it by mail; or you can read or download it from our literature reprint Web site at www.ucg.org/reprints. WNP