Should we be concerned about agricultural bioterrorism?
Since 9/11, Americans have spent a lot of time thinking about terrorist attacks. So much so that it is quite surprising that the first federal guidelines to protect the US food supply from a wide-scale act of bioterrorism have just been issued by the Food and Drug Administration. Even more surprising, perhaps, is the fact that many of the protections won't go into effect until the year 2021.
It's not that people haven't been worrying about the safety of our food supply; they most certainly have. Back in 2004, Tommy Thompson, then-Secretary of Health and Human Services, said: "I, for the life of me, cannot understand why the terrorists have not attacked our food supply, because it is so easy to do." And, in 2008, food writer Michael Pollan wrote, "When a single factory is grinding 20 million hamburger patties in a week or washing 25 million servings of salad, a single terrorist armed with a canister of toxins can, at a stroke, poison millions."
The new guidelines are "aimed at preventing intentional adulteration from acts intended to cause wide-scale harm to public health, including acts of terrorism targeting the food supply," the FDA says. "Such acts, while not likely to occur, could cause illness, death, economic disruption of the food supply absent mitigation strategies."
The guidelines put the onus of protecting our food supply on large-scale food suppliers themselves—a fact that may or may not give you comfort, given the past failures of the FDA's hands-off approach. The regulations will apply to both domestic and foreign companies that are required to register with the FDA, meaning they are "large companies whose products reach many people." The rules don't apply to farms, restaurants, or small companies, which are exempt.
The FDA says, "Rather than targeting specific foods or hazards, this rule requires mitigation (risk-reducing) strategies for processes in certain registered food facilities." The facilities that are covered will have to draft a food defense plan every three years. The FDA will then inspect facilities to see if they are living up to their own initiatives.
Thanks to the new regulations, the FDA will now have—for the very first time ever—mandatory recall power over food products. Believe it or not, until now, the FDA could only strongly suggest that a company issue a recall for tainted products. Still, when the FDA speaks, companies have generally listened. "FDA expects that it will only need to invoke this [mandatory recall] authority infrequently since the food industry largely honors our requests for voluntary recalls," the agency says.
The biggest companies required to come up with food defense plans have five years to do so. This means your food will not be fully protected by the new regulations until then.
In the meantime, let's hope that some Bondian villain hell-bent on destabilizing America's breadbasket doesn't appear from the shadows.