ORLANDO, Fla. — Biological terrorism on the U.S. food supply chain is still a very real threat, Michael Sealy, vice president, Risk Management Services, Giant Eagle, Pittsburgh, said during the Retail Industry Leaders Association's Logistics 2008 conference here last week.
Quoting Rhona Applebaum, chief regulatory officer for the National Food Processors Association, Sealy said, “The potential for the food supply being a target or tool of terrorism can no longer be viewed in hypothetical terms.”
Sealy, a former operations officer with the CIA, shared intelligence with retailers about Al Qaeda's training and plans to poison food supplies. Also, in 2003, suspected militants were arrested in London for plotting to add the deadly poison ricin to the food supply on a British military base. The same year, the FBI warned that terrorists might use naturally occurring toxins, nicotine and solanine, to poison U.S. food or water supplies.
In addition, small-scale bioterrorism attacks have already occurred in the U.S., he pointed out. For example, in 1984, salmonella bacteria was placed in eight Oregon restaurants' salad bars, and members of the Rajneesh religious sect were charged.
“It was a test run for a planned biological attack. The target was the town's water supply before the November election,” Sealy said.
In more recent years, food has been contaminated in supermarkets and mass merchandisers in the U.S. and Canada by disgruntled employees. For example, a former Kmart employee put rat poison in packages of ground beef in a store in Charleston, S.C., last April.
Because of bioterrorism threats from both within and outside grocery organizations, Sealy suggests a broad security plan that includes employee training and background checks, tight control of warehouses and awareness of all possible contamination areas throughout the transportation system.
Vulnerable areas of retailers' operations include: any location where food and finished goods are exposed, stored or transported, unpackaged; wherever people can be alone and unseen with products for a period of time; and during transit from manufacturers to retailers.
In addition, contamination can occur in retailers' private-label manufacturing and in processing areas.
“There is increased risk in bulk transport of food ingredients where rapid mixing will subsequently occur, or materials used to contaminate product would not be noticed,” Sealy said.
Since current and former employees have the most access, Sealy suggests multi-jurisdictional background checks on employees, going back seven years. Temporary employees and contractors should also be checked.
Meanwhile, vendors and contractors should be required to sign in and out. “Accompany visitors, vendors and contractors while they are on-site,” Sealy said.
In addition, employees should be trained to be aware of their surroundings.
“Ask employees to report unusual circumstances and challenge strangers,” Sealy said.
Rail cars and trucks going to and from distribution centers can also be a major area of vulnerability for retailers.
“Contaminants can be added in storage or transit to bulk storage containers, bulk ingredients, spices, cases, pallets, finished goods en route to the retailer, and finished goods within the retailer distribution system,” Sealy said.
Sealy suggests watching out for rail cars that are unattended and unlocked, valves left unlocked, and trailers unsealed and unlocked during long breaks.
“Poor seal verification processes invite attack,” Sealy said.
While not the biggest threat, warehouses should be controlled tightly, and interior and exterior closed-circuit TV coverage should be installed.
“Access control and physical security are necessary, even if only to deter theft,” Sealy said.
In monitoring security cameras, he advised retailers to pay attention to shadows and dead areas, where people will not show up clearly on videos.