Pure Genius

2011 brings heightened focus on threats to our food supply

Posting in Design

A food safety expert talks about food terrorism, why we should pay attention to ingredients that come from non-ally countries, and what needs to happen in 2011 to lower the amount of tainted food that reaches our tables.

Dr. Robert Buchanan, director of the Center for Food Safety and Security Systems at the University of MarylandJust before the holidays, the House of Representatives voted to approve a modernization of the country’s food safety laws, giving more authority to the Food and Drug Administration and charging the agency with taking more preventative measures rather than reacting to outbreaks--E. coli and salmonella, for example. President Obama is expected to sign the bill.

Shortly after the House vote, I spoke with Dr. Robert Buchanan, director of the Center for Food Safety and Security Systems at the University of Maryland. The center looks at potential threats to our food supply, such as bioterrorism and intentional contamination. I talked with Dr. Buchanan about food defense, how he protects himself from unsafe food, why obesity is a food safety concern, and the most important things that need to occur in 2011 to lower the amount of tainted food that reaches our dining room tables.

How does the Center for Food Safety and Security Systems approach food safety?

We do a combination of research, education and outreach. We take a systems approach to food safety issues. Food supply—there’s not many things that are as complex as the global food supply.

The big thing for us on the University of Maryland campus is we try to do these multi-disciplinary projects. The focus is trying to get people together. We’re into problem-solving.

Tell me about the role academia plays today in the area of food safety, and how you’re working with government and industry.

It’s attempting to do some of its traditional role—generate the science and research needed to make informed decisions and develop new techniques and the next set of tools in terms of risk analysis. We’re trying to find new ways to help people who have to make decisions.

In addition, we’re playing several additional critical roles that will become more important in the future. Probably the biggest one as we move into improved produce safety and the challenges with the FDA modernization act that just passed is outreach in the industry, especially as they start to push “buy local” approaches. You’re seeing a big shift at all levels of outreach. It’s not just going out and preaching or giving yourself as the expert; it’s also finding out what [farmers are] doing and how they’re solving problems.

For example, one of the things we’re starting to learn as we deal with produce safety issues is that some of the smaller farmers have found solutions for their operations that are equally effective but different than the big farms; so we need to figure out if they are effective. That was a really sensitive issue in the food safety bill that just passed and is still is a very controversial issue—the exceptions for small farms. It didn’t go over well with the large farms or the scientific community.

The other area is education. I know the big push by USDA is thinking about trans-disciplinary education. For example, to solve produce problems, you need a combination of people who understand microbiology, plant pathology, engineering, risk assessment, production. Basically you need five or six key disciplines. Traditionally, you get experts from each area together to learn each other’s language. Now we’re looking at getting people together as part of their educational process so they learn about each other’s disciplines. So we have specialists in food safety and not just specialists in each of the areas.

What food safety issues will the pubic hear more about in the new year?

I can't underemphasize this—the food safety bill that just passed will dramatically change the way the FDA and the total food industry does business. It will push them from primarily an inspection role to focusing on preventative controls, so the emphasis will be on the design of food safety systems, where you’re anticipating the problems and put in place the programs to prevent that from happening. You’re going to see a lot of growing pains I think. You’re going to see a lot of activity as regulatory agencies figure out how to do this. It won’t be insurmountable, because most of the bigger industries have taken this approach for decades.

You’ll see a formalization of the whole concept of food defense and see that the food supply does not become a tool for terrorism.

Tell me about food defense.

It’s been well discussed in the public that there’s a concern about the vulnerably we have with someone trying to tamper with the food supply. We had some real wake up calls that weren’t terrorism—the melamine in different food products coming out of China is the classic example. There are a tools [that have been] generated over the last nine years that are used to be able to anticipate some of the problems.

There are bunch of food ingredients that are used commonly that come from places that don’t particularly like us.

Such as?

Gum arabic is an ingredient used widely as a thickening agent. Most of it comes from the Sudan, a place that is not particularly friendly with us. You have a number of spices that come from places like Afghanistan. You have a number of the major sources of ingredients that come from China, such as nutrients like Vitamin C. If you want to buy Vitamin C and put it into your product, it comes from China or India.

I’m amazed how little people know about where their food comes from. Do you know where most of the apple juice comes from?

I think China.

Yes, that comes from China. What about orange juice concentrate?

My first thought is Florida, but I’m guessing that’s not right.

No, Brazil far outweighs any other place for orange juice concentrate. And if you like shrimp, 85 percent of the shrimp we eat in the U.S. comes from foreign countries.

Part of the reality is that people start to think of the safety of the food supply in terms of what's going on globally. In the new bill, industries will be encouraged to think about the inadvertent contamination and how they would protect their food supply.

Are there any recent incidences of food terrorism?

One of the favorite pastimes in China is you get rid of your competition by poisoning their food. While certainly it was for economic reasons, the issue of melamine was caused on purpose. The same could have happened if they wanted to do it as an act of terrorism. It happens enough that the government is concerned about it.

How much is Homeland Security involved in food safety?

Very much. They’re the lead for it.

What kinds of precautions are we as a country taking?

Before any food product can enter the U.S. there is a prior notice requirement; the U.S. has to be notified what is coming in and then someone from customs or FDA has to go inspect it. Part of the food safety bill includes doing inspections in the country of origin. There’s an effort going on to get better intelligence. Most of the activity in this whole process is behind the scenes.

Will all this make it easier for consumers to know where our ingredients come from?

Yes. One of the things, as we move into a global marketplace, the ability to handle the data has been a challenge for the government. You’ll see more on informatics—how do you keep track of all this data.

What are the three most important things that need to happen in 2011 to lower the amount of tainted food that reaches our tables?

  1. Good temperature control throughout the food chain;
  2. The adoption of the new regulations as a food management system throughout the industry;
  3. From farm all the way through the supermarket or restaurant, have people who have been appropriately trained to worry about and implement the right controls, because a lot of the problems are still human error.

What do you do personally to protect yourself from unsafe food?

I primarily rely on what I know the industry is dong. I’m more concerned with what the people in the kitchen are doing in terms of how they are handling the food. I know that I have very little control over where the food comes from when I’m in the restaurant, but I’m familiar enough with what the controls are that I worry less about that than the temperate of the cooler.

I would encourage any consumer to learn about where their food comes from, how it was manufactured, have a little curiosity about what they’re eating and then eat less of it. The biggest food safety concern in the U.S. is that we eat too much of it. Your obesity impacts your health. You can’t really separate nutrition and food from safety, because they are all intimately tied up together. Everyone, including me, could stand to lose 20 pounds.

Melanie D.G. Kaplan

Contributing Editor

Melanie D.G. Kaplan is a Washington, D.C.- based journalist. She is a regular contributor to The Washington Post and National Parks Magazine. Her website is www.melaniedgkaplan.com. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure