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The Leading Voices in Food

E32: Food Defense 101 with Amy Kircher

Hosted by: Kelly Brownell (Duke)
April 5, 2019

We all wonder how safe our food is. And we hear a lot about food contamination and things like produce and other foods. But have you ever thought that contamination of the food supply could be intentional? Is this one way that terrorists might attack our country or others? Thankfully, there are some very talented people who worry about this, who studied and who provide ways to prevent this from happening. One leading voice in this area is Dr. Amy Kircher, director of the Food Protection and Defense Institute, the Department of Homeland Security, Centre of Excellence at the University of Minnesota.

Amy Kircher is the Director of the Food Protection and Defense Institute, a Department of Homeland Security Center of Excellence and Co-Director of the Collaboratory at the University of Minnesota. She leads the Institute’s initiatives and coordinates a research consortium of experts dedicated to protecting the food system through research and education. Her current research includes identification and warning of food disruptions and emerging disease through data fusion and analysis; supply chains; and delivery of innovative solutions to the professionals in the field. Additionally, she conducts research efforts on global health and pandemic preparedness leveraging expertise and technology that exists in the Institute.

Interview Summary

Let’s start by saying what food defense is. It’s not a term that a lot of people are familiar with.

Food defense is the intentional contamination of food, so it’s protecting against that, so someone intentionally misrepresenting our food either for, gain economically or it could be in many cases scary to cause harm in the public.

So does this get confused with other related issues like food safety and food security and how do we distinguish between them?

That’s a great question and one that we often face. Food security, that terminology was articulated by the World Health Organization is having safe available, nutritious food for all. So security sometimes is confused with defense. But in this context, food security is making sure all people have access to food. Food safety is when there’s an accidental or a natural contamination of the food. And then food defense is when there’s a man-made intervention. So there’s something that has happened, somebody has done something to the food to misrepresent it from what we think it is.

So if you wouldn’t mind, describe the different motivations of people who might undertake such acts and I know that you’ve spoken of terrorism and sabotage and economically motivated adulteration. How are they different and how are they similar?

So what we have found is that intelligent adversaries are people who know the system and try to cause harm in it, have a multitude of motivations. So, from a terrorist perspective, we know that intelligent adversaries are trying to create fear. They might be trying to create human or animal health harm, or they could be trying to disrupt our traditional way of living which may impact our economy, for example. Sabotage is also intentional from the perspective of doing harm. Sabotage could be a company attacking another company, or it could be a disgruntled employee who’s unhappy with their current situation at work, or perhaps they are unhappy with some of their co-workers and they seek revenge. Both terrorism and sabotage have an intentional component where the outcome sought is harm. Now economically motivated adulteration, which is sometimes coined as food fraud, is slightly different. The motivation of those intentional adversaries is to make money or increase their economic gain. So they don’t want to be uncovered because they’d like to continue the fraudulent behavior. So we hear a lot about food fraud in honey, and in olive oil, where the product consumers are buying is not the product as labeled, it may have been diluted, an ingredient was substituted, perhaps it’s mislabeled. Another example we see is with seafood and species substitution of fish.

Do people think about their food supply, introducing vulnerability in other lives? They’re usually thinking about food safety issue like salmonella and things like this. You’re talking about a different, a different issue of course. How vulnerable are we to intentional contamination of supply?

Yeah, food is a very interesting sector and a critical infrastructure for each and every one of us. I like to share with folks I speak in forums or in classes, or even in our research that we don’t really think about food each day when we consume it. I don’t look at my breakfast and say, “I wonder if somebody has intentionally, “adulterated my breakfast.” We just eat because we’re trying to nourish our bodies, or we eat, be in a very social context with our friends and family at restaurants. Or maybe we eat particular foods based on a cultural preference. So we don’t really think through, you know, consuming food and then it’s been contaminated, although we can avoid it. So if there’s a threat to our food system, it is really incredibly important that we ensure we have all the safeguards in place. Now we have seen disgruntled employees, we’ve seen company damage to other companies. And unfortunately, we do have instances of terrorists introduction of contamination within foods. Thankfully that are far and few between.

Those had happened in the United States or elsewhere?

That’s a great question. It has happened in the United States. So from a terrorism perspective, perhaps the largest event that we’ve had came in 1984, was in the Dalles, Oregon, and a call wanted to sway an election. And so they put salmonella in a salad bar, but in salad bars and several restaurants in the Dalles, Oregon area. So that’s been the largest. Then we’ve seen smaller versions, intentional adulteration in this country. But I would point to foreign locations where we’ve continually seen adulteration of both food and water by terrorists.

I’m assuming that there’s not a lot that individual consumers can do to protect themselves because you buy the food and trust that it’s safe or you eat it in a restaurant and again, you trust that it’s safe and that this is mainly an issue of surveillance and moderating prevention by governments. Are there things that individual consumers can do?

Consumers are in an interesting place where they are the absolute end of the supply chain for the food system. So they are the the fork of farm to fork and it’s really challenging for them to intervene any earlier. So recommendations I have for consumers are, buy your food from a reputable source one that you know, practices good manufacturing, has legitimate policies in place, sources, ingredients from places we know, those ingredients are grown. The other thing is to pay the price food should cost. So often when we see a product that has been adulterated or, you know, there’s something that is concerning about it, it that prices often undercut. So consumers should really look toward their food and say, how much does this really, should this cost and then pay a fair value for it. Lastly, I would argue consumers should just be aware of the market and trade around them. So, you know, being aware of what’s happening in the news and papers and if they’re seeing any trends in products that they buy or particular food types that they’re interested in.

Are there particular foods or types of foods where there would be especially high vulnerability?

That’s a great question. The answer is absolutely, yes. Typically, adulteration happens, at least from an economic perspective, will happen in a place that has a higher price point. So seasonings for interest, spices, for example, often have a higher price point. And so if you dilute those spices, you can make more profit. But what I would say from an intentional adulteration to cause harm, some of those products that are more vulnerable are those that are created in bulk, or have long supply chains. We say this because they’re, one more opportunities for a bad guy to enter the system, especially if that supply chain is long and global in nature. From the batch perspective, we often look at those products that are produced in a way where it’s easy to include some contaminant that would cause harm. So when you think of big mixing vats, oil or liquids, perhaps, those would be areas where we would look toward additional vulnerability.

Can you explain an example or give us an example if you would have, what a long supply chain would be?

Sure, so if we think of a bottle of maybe Worcestershire sauce, that end product is made up of multiple components or raw materials. One of them is a spice. So if we took paprika or BB, red pepper, those supply chains might be 11 steps long to get to the final product, which is the bottle in your refrigerator. So a spice might be grown in one location. It could be harvested and moved to a second location for processing. That spice might be bought and sold through brokers up to six or seven times. And throughout that tenure, there could be a transition in movement. So spices that are grown in India, may end up all over the world and end up in final products, and touch as many hands for, in the case of Worcestershire sauce, maybe 11 times.


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