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‘Agro-terrorism: One of the greatest terrorist threats we face’ – Professor

By Ben Bouckley+

20-May-2013
Last updated the 20-May-2013 at 15:47 GMT

Top public health professor David Dausey warns that increasing global supply chain complexity carries with it a greater risk of product contamination, with potentially disastrous results for dairy brands and public health, and a growing need to ensure product safety.

So what cautionary lessons can be learnt, and what procedures can be put in place to ensure intentional or unintentional product contamination, so that your brand doesn’t have to face dairy product Doomsday?

Professor Dausey, chair of the Public Health Department at Pennsylvania-based Mercyhurst Institute of Public Health, told DairyReporter.com that the cost of a badly handled recall could be significant, and outlined one “great example”.

Snow Brand Milk Products was one of Japan’s top dairy companies until over 15,000 people became ill after consuming their milk products, he explained, due to the presence of Staphylococcus aureus on one of their factory production lines.

Leading Snow executives were later convicted of professional negligence, and Dausey said: “Many people felt the initial response of the company was too slow and their initial recall was half hearted because the company was worried about their reputation."

He added: “The company's response to the incident resulted in a major loss of market share and a net loss of tens of billions of yen (estimated at over $400m). They subsequently merged with another company and changed their name.”

Food recalls had increased dramatically in recent years, Dausey explained, noting that in the last quarter, the US had six recalls per day – around 18.4m products – and that the average cost of one food recall for a company was $10m just in direct costs.

Japan recall ‘handled terribly’ – Prof. Doug Powell

So what  procedures can brands put in place to ensure that issues such as contamination, problems with taste issues, shelf life, illness and allergies, packaging problems, labeling errors, do not occur?

Another leading food safety professor, Doug Powell, from the Department of Diagnostic Medicine and Pathobiology at Kansas State University also cited the Snow Brand case, “handled terribly, but that’s what they do in Japan and why the outbreaks are so large”.

Rather than responding to recalls, Powell said the best producers will promote their food safety procedures in the absence of a crisis, bragging about their safety, their culture, and marketing that data at retail”.

“That way, as a consumer, I know which brands to reward with my money. Consumers are more than aware of this stuff, and can handle a grown-up conversation about risk,” he added.

First and foremost, Dausey said, brands needed to focus on regular product inspections at every step in the food supply chain: farms, haulers and handlers, etc., must all be inspected.

In addition, employees needed to be specially trained and certified, Dausey said, while regular samples must be taken to insure the safety of products. 

“Quality control must check and recheck things like labels and inspect packaging,” he added.  “Many food contamination problems are the result of poor inspection procedures or a lack of standardized processes to check and recheck products to ensure safety.

Regulatory frameworks ‘not keeping pace’ with risk

As food supply chain complexity increased with the growing international reach of food, the probability of contamination did also, Dausey said, since the number of places where food could be unintentionally contaminated “continues to grow daily”.  

“The number of food handlers has dramatically increased as have the number of factory farms that mass produce food products for large segments of the population,” he said.  Existing food regulatory frameworks of most governments around the world are not keeping pace with these changes.” 

This was one reason why we'd seen dramatic increases in food contamination cases, which had quintupled in the US in the last five years, Dausey said, and did not even take into account growing number of opportunities the food supply chain offered individuals wishing to intentionally contaminate food.

Dausey served a stark warning: “We should be more concerned with agro-terrorism and the potential risks faced by our food system.  Aside from cyber-terrorism, I see agro-terrorism as one of the greatest terrorism threats we face in the next 5-10 years," he said.

Discussing the microbiological safety of foods, Powell said: “I see outbreaks around the corner and around the globe. It’s not about supply chain or size. It’s about whether the producer knows about microbial risks and takes steps to reduce these risks.”

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