Anyone concerned about the domestic terrorism threat should be comforted to know that the U.S. food industry and federal government are busy enacting measures to protect the food supply.
But a rush to take action runs the risk of launching initiatives that aren't effective or, worse, are actually detrimental because they aren't well planned. More on that in a moment.
First, the good news: Many players have stepped up to the plate with proactive and beneficial food-security efforts.
The Food Marketing Institute and the Grocery Manufacturers of America are jointly creating a food-security contact database of key industry trading partners, as outlined by FMI's Tim Hammonds in a story on Page 26. The database project's goal is rapid communication in an emergency. Once the database is completed, there will be a recall simulation to test the system, according to Susan Stout, GMA's vice president of Federal Affairs.
FMI also serves as the food-industry coordinator for the Information Sharing and Analysis Center (ISAC), which is the food industry's liaison to the Homeland Security Department. FMI and the National Food Processors Association have developed a joint security manual that includes checklists for food processors and retailers.
The Customs Service has climbed on board the new security bandwagon with a program praised in importer circles. Called "Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism," or C-TPAT, the recently launched joint government-business initiative enables importers to receive faster processing at ports if they successfully meet certain advance requirements, including a security check.
Now for the problem. A program aimed at fostering security isn't necessarily an automatic win. It has to be designed well. That's GMA's point as it calls for modifications to proposed Food and Drug Administration rules that intend to protect the security of the food supply. FDA unveiled rules on how food companies should provide prior notice to the government about imports. But GMA contends the rules go beyond what Congress decreed in the Bioterrorism Act of 2001.
The problem is FDA seeks documentation that is far too complicated and information that often isn't available in the time frame required. For instance, FDA wants notice of shipments by noon the day before product enters the U.S. But some of the information isn't available that early, and imports run the risk of being stopped and held at the border until the issue can be rectified, which can take up to two days. Other concerns about FDA rules include requirements for too much extraneous information and the inability to streamline the system by reducing the number of notices needed. "This process can fall under its own weight," Stout said.
That result would help no one and actually could endanger food security if it doesn't work. GMA has called for modifications that can alter the plan to make it more manageable. It is hoped FDA, which has encouraged input, will carefully consider these suggestions.
Our society is newly enlightened to the need to protect itself and is willing to make sacrifices that are legitimate. Retailers and manufacturers are already experiencing slower imports because of heightened security requirements. But new regulations should be scrutinized to ensure they are practical. Government shouldn't create major bottlenecks to the flow of trade unless a clear security benefit is present.