020914 Food Inspectors Prepare for a Terrorism Spy GameSeptember 8, 2002
Washington (Reuters Health) - The seemingly mundane world of government food inspections is soon to gain a level of intrigue worthy of any spy novel, if federal inspectors get their way.
Well, maybe not enough intrigue for most novels. But the nation's food inspections system will certainly get a lot sexier as the government prepares to add a dose of foreign intelligence and spy work into their efforts to prevent terrorists from attacking the US through its food system.
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which already inspects food imports from over 180 nations, was given broad new policing powers when President Bush signed a new bioterrorism law back in July. Congress also gave the agency a lot more money, with the expectation that the agency would do better than the 2%-4% of imported food its inspectors currently manage to lay eyes on.
Still, government inspectors can never inspect every shipment entering the country at any of 300 US ports. Instead, officials are moving to implement a bioterror defense system--similar to one already used in domestic food production -- that relies on probabilities and predictions to focus inspections where attacks are most likely to take place, according to FDA Deputy Commissioner Lester Crawford.
The system, called hazard reduction and critical control point (HACCP), works by stationing inspectors at places in a food plant where contamination is most likely to occur, say, on a hot conveyer belt instead of in a cold freezer. Experts use what they know about germ behavior and food processing to use a few inspectors wisely.
But HACCP's equivalent in the world of bioterror defense takes on dimensions beyond an E. coli bacterium's preferred temperature for infecting a hamburger.
Inspectors now have to factor in what poisons terrorists might use, where they might try to do it, and what individual foods are the most vulnerable to attack. And information like that requires intelligence, such as the type provided by the Central Intelligence Agency.
It's all part of the government's efforts to improve coordination between often-distant government agencies for the sake of defending against terrorism.
It won't be the first time the FDA and CIA have cooperated. They've worked together in the past in the aftermath of events like the Chernobyl nuclear accident or during heightened tensions between India and Pakistan, Crawford said in an interview Friday after a speech at the US State Department.
"Things of the past were event-driven. Now we want it to be forward-thinking," he said.
That means relying on intelligence to help determine which poisons, germs, or contaminants are the most readily available to potential terrorists and how much access to a country's exported food supply they have.
Those poisons and those countries then go to the top of the FDA's list, while hard-to-get contaminants or hard-to-contaminate foods go to the bottom.
Crawford said that some parts of the new system are already up and running at US ports. "Much of it is not discussible," he said.
Still, HACCP is not without controversy in the US. Consumer watch-dog groups have long attacked the system for failing to catch contaminants in the domestic meat supply, and the US General Accounting Office has issued reports exposing weaknesses, especially at meat and poultry plants.
And those plants aren't out to hurt anyone. So what happens when a terrorist learns how inspectors have organized their inspections and skirts the system by simply shifting to a rare poison, an unlikely food, or a little-used port?
"That's all factored in," Crawford said.
His next step comes in January, when US officials begin the effort of negotiating with exporting nations on how to weave the US war on terrorism into the already-established worldwide food transportation system.
A lot of the convincing is likely to take place through the World Health Organization and the World Trade Organization. But the task may not be easy because, as Crawford said during his speech, many US allies remain "insufficiently alarmed" about the level of threat.
"We need for other countries to feel our plight and to realize that our plight is their plight," Crawford said.