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Padlock The Milk! FDA’s Push To Safeguard The Food Supply

Abbie Fentress Swanson
Harvest Public Media

Many of the food terrorism scenarios outlined by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration involve liquid.

And there’s good reason for that.

Liquids like orange juice and milk go through many processing steps -- farm, bottling plant, delivery – before reaching the consumers who drink them. And these liquids are moved, manufactured and stored in huge batches that get distributed and consumed quickly. Should a toxin be injected somewhere along the supply chain, experts believe it could have devastating human health and economic consequences.

“It’s a situation where an agent can be added, a toxin could be added to the food, and it would tend to be fairly easily mixed into the food, as opposed to stay in a clump somewhere that isn’t going to be dispersed into a large volume of food and cause massive casualties, which is what we believe a terrorist organization would want to do,” said Don Kraemer, senior advisor at the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.  

Intentional contamination of bulk liquids is a key focus for the FDA as it pushes to implement uniform procedures aimed at protecting the U.S. food supply from terrorist acts. At the end of December, the agency proposed a rule that would require food production firms with more than $10 million in annual sales to develop food defense plans. Such plans would address vulnerabilities in companies' operations, and encompass measures like locking gates when they’re not in use, maintaining visitor logs, and opening mail in rooms separate from production areas. Congress authorized the FDA to pass the rule under the Food Safety Modernization Act.

But the food industry isn’t crying out for these regulations. Indeed, many companies think they’ve done just fine figuring this out on their own.

Since 9/11, both the FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture -- which regulates meat, poultry and eggs -- have been helping companies write food defense plans. Companies have been receptive to developing them: 77 percent of meat, poultry and egg processing plants have food defense plans in place, and the USDA says that number is growing. 

Hiland Dairy, which sells milk and ice cream in the Midwest, tightened up security at its facilities 12 years ago.

Credit Abbie Fentress Swanson / Harvest Public Media
Harvest Public Media
Milk is an extremely popular item on the University of Missouri campus, says purchasing coordinator Sandy Perley. "Our entire campus in a year drinks about 96,000 gallons of milk. And by our best calculation, that’s about 326 gallons a day."

  “I don’t see much changing with the new rule at all,” said Greg Stephenson, Hiland’s marketing coordinator. “Since 2002, we've done so many things with all of our food production plants. This includes having all doors that have security padlocks on them that only employees know [how] to get into. I've seen a lot of fencing that's gone up -- especially around our ammonia tanks -- with razor wire around the top of that.”

Another big Missouri milk processor, Central Dairy, put seals on each of its delivery trucks about five years ago. If the seals are broken when milk is received or delivered, the company knows something is wrong. Central Dairy trucks transporting ice cream and milk to multiple locations have padlocks on them that only drivers have the keys to.

But it’s not just the dairy industry that would have to toe the line. All but the smallest food manufacturing, processing and storage facilities registered with the FDA would be covered. Foreign facilities that export food to the U.S. would also have to comply. The agency estimates the rule will affect about 4,600 food production firms, and that it will cost them $370 million annually.

“It is a large group of industry that needs to look at this rule, really provide thoughtful comment because it will affect them,” said Amy Kircher, director of the National Center for Food Protection and Defense. “It may be challenging for some companies or industries who have not thought about the defense of the food system from an intentional attack. But I would argue most people have considered it, if they haven’t yet put mitigation steps in place.”

Businesses need to act soon if they want to weigh in since the comment period on the regulation closes at the end of March. In comments submitted by the Grocery Manufacturers Association, among others, companies say they see the need for food defense plans but want flexibility to reduce costs of implementation.

Some customers question the necessary of the rule. Take the University of Missouri, which purchases about 96,000 gallons of milk a year -- or 326 gallons a day -- for its Columbia, Mo., campus.

“I have concerns about whether it would increase cost to us. Because this is a big part of our budget, our food budget, and extra regulation usually does increase cost,” said the university’s purchasing coordinator Sandy Perley.

After the public comment period closes on the regulation, there will still be plenty of time for the FDA to resolve concerns raised by customers and the industry. The agency has until May 31, 2016 to publish a final rule.

This is part two of Harvest Public Media's report on food terrorism. Click here to read part one.

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