Recipe for Success
WHAT REALLY SCARES EUROPEAN UNION officials like Isabelle Benoliel is the risk that terrorists or criminals might contaminate Europe’s food supply in some way that allows them to sicken and kill far more people than a conventional bomb attack could. Benoliel, senior advisor on bioterrorism at the European Commission, says, “Bioterrorism is less likely than classic terrorism using bombs, but a biological or food terrorism attack could cause greater impact.”
The appearance of HV5N1 avian flu virus in Europe and the succession of crises in the British meat industry have further increased unease over food safety and security. The U.K. beef industry has not fully recovered from a succession of foot-and-mouth disease outbreaks and the BSE (mad cow) crisis.
The United Kingdom estimates that a 2001 foot-and-mouth outbreak alone cost the country between $12.4 billion and $13.9 billion. Another outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease took place in mid-2007 after a strain of the virus escaped a government research laboratory in southern England, according to a government investigation of the incident.
Neither avian flu nor foot-and-mouth present immediate threats to human health, but officials worry that terrorists or criminals could intentionally infect livestock or poultry farms to undermine a country’s economy, terrorize consumers, or extort companies. They also want to be prepared for the day when nature itself might cause the problem to affect humans.
While the EU and member states have plenty of laws and regulations controlling aspects of the continent’s food supply, from nutrition to labeling to safety, the food industry remains vulnerable to attack. An EU consultative paper on bio-preparedness issued in July 2007 identifies some of these vulnerabilities. The concerns range from inadequate food processing and handling standards to patchy detection systems and inadequate crisis-management mechanisms.
Food-industry security executives acknowledge that the food supply is at risk. While many food-industry companies fear bioterror concerns could lead to overregulation, one CSO at a major American food outlet in the United Kingdom says that he welcomes heightened official interest in food security. “The authorities are always looking at threats to the critical infrastructure, but they are not looking much at the food chain and asking themselves what could happen if political activists or terrorists interrupted it,” he says.
The European Union collectively and its member states individually are focusing broadly on bioterrorism, which encompasses possible threats to the food supply. They are tackling the threat with multiple initiatives that fall generally into the areas of response, detection, and prevention.
Given the difficulty of prevention, most efforts center on being prepared to respond to an incident. “We need to be ready to react rapidly and simultaneously to various events in various parts of Europe,” Benoliel says.
Among the initiatives are worst-case scenario drills designed to assess how well existing crisis-management systems could handle an incident. For example, Interpol, the international police organization, organized a tabletop exercise in December 2007. Called Black Death, it was designed to train officials in responses to a bioterrorism event.
The scenario began with terrorists spreading large amounts of plague bacteria with hundreds of simple horns, similar to those used at sporting events. The exercise simulated an attack in Australia and monitored the spread of highly infectious plague to nine other countries around the world.
The event was staged in Lyon, France, where Interpol is headquartered. Participants included national law enforcement agencies from nine countries as well as international organizations, such as the World
Health Organization (WHO) and Interpol itself.
The Black Death exercise led to several major findings, says the event’s moderator, Barry Kellman, who is director of the International Weapons Control Center at DePaul University and a special advisor to Interpol’s biocrimes prevention program.
The first finding was that current detection and investigation procedures are not adequate for a bioterrorist attack. “Black Death showed that there is no way to carry out an international [bioterrorism] investigation. It started in Australia, but as the problem multiplied, the absence of international capacity to find who was doing it and to stop them became clear,” says Kellman.
A second lesson was the need for governments to invest more in prevention. “We need to reduce the opportunities for the commission of this crime,” says Kellman. “We need better law enforcement, we need better legislation, and we need to strengthen equipment and training. We need more preparedness.” Western governments are taking action on these fronts, he says, but international cooperation is still insufficient, as the Commission’s paper made clear.
A third finding was the importance of improving first-responder training and enhancing information dissemination. Black Death indicated that some national and international agencies are simply not prepared to handle a global public-health crisis.
For instance, WHO has well-developed protocols for addressing a plague as a medical phenomenon. But Kellman says “they did not ‘get’ that when you have mass casualties that are intentionally inflicted, then plague is no longer the same as naturally occurring plague. There is a difference.”
Any plague would strain healthcare systems and worry the public, but a manmade pandemic might be designed to spread faster. Thus, it could more rapidly overwhelm healthcare systems, and populations would be swept by panic, especially because poorly informed media outlets would likely fan hysteria.
Black Death demonstrated the importance of setting up effective media relations programs. “A lot of time was spent going back and forth, not on treatment, but on panic factors, media factors,” says Kellman.
Britain, France, Germany, and Sweden have developed excellent emergency-response plans to deal with bioterrorist attacks, including attacks on food-supply networks, says Alexandre Custaud, coordinator of the European task force on bioterrorism at Europa-Bio, the European biotech trade association. Their planning runs the gamut from stockpiling key vaccines to having well-equipped sports stadiums that can be used for emergency accommodation. However, he and others are less confident about the ability of some Mediterranean countries or some of the new Eastern European member states to mobilize rapidly in response to an attack.
The United Kingdom is frequently mentioned as having the most advanced planning and response capabilities in Europe. “I’d agree that it is true. Stadiums and other facilities are being prepared for emergency use. The British are very advanced,” says the CEO of a consulting firm working on an emergency-planning project for the European Commission.
The British began taking contingency planning more seriously in 2000. “Within a few months in 2000, the U.K. government had to deal with foot-and-mouth disease, flooding, and a fuel dispute,” says Charlie Edwards, senior researcher at Demos, a London-based think tank.
“The outcome of the crises was the creation of the Civil Contingencies Secretariat (CCS). The CCS has transformed the way the government thinks and acts on issues of resilience and contingency work,” says Edwards.
Disaster planning has become more systematic, thanks to the CCS, which has a mandate to ensure that adequate plans are in place. The CCS has established an early-warning capacity to identify, and prevent or minimize, potential emergencies. It has also set in place a national risk assessment process, and it is working with others to identify sites that could be used in a crisis. Furthermore, it has strengthened links with international organizations such as the EU and NATO.
The United Kingdom plans to double the stockpile of the influenza anti-viral Tamiflu, doubling coverage to 50 percent of the population. Officials will not disclose availability of treatments for other infectious diseases, such as anthrax.
The United Kingdom also has staged elaborate exercises. Last year, 5,000 players, including cabinet secretaries, local government officials, and business executives participated in Winter Willow, a nationwide exercise held in January and February 2007, which simulated an avian flu epidemic. Like Black Death, Winter Willow revealed weaknesses in media relations and international coordination.
To improve its preparedness, the United Kingdom rolled out a sophisticated training program called Gold Standard in June 2007. The program—designed by Agusta-Westland, an Italian defense contractor, and built around Automated Exercise System (AES) software from California-based SAIC—models decision outcomes and impacts in simulated crises. Among the scenarios used in the sessions are a food contamination crisis, epidemic foot-and-mouth disease, and disruption of essential services including energy, water, and food supplies.
Despite these efforts to get in front of the problem, it is still largely a reactionary battle, says Edwards. “The U.K.’s response remains 80 percent driven by events. We learn from our mistakes and then develop capacity, as opposed to being more proactive,” says Edwards. “My primary concern is that we are only able to fight from one event to the next.”
Like the United States, European consumers get a large proportion of their food from distant suppliers, either from within Europe itself or from around the world. This supply chain creates numerous vulnerabilities that terrorists can exploit.
Europe’s first line of defense is an EU-wide network of rapid-alert systems that are managed by national governments’ customs and food inspection services. These systems alert the European Commission and other member states whenever they detect threats to the food supply or to public health. Threats may come from biological and chemical agent attacks or from more mundane problems, such as spoiled or substandard products. The system is designed to catch contaminated or substandard food whether shipped across Europe or imported from outside the EU.
The Commission posts weekly reports detailing which products were blocked and why, as well as identifying the company and country of origin of each item. The reports illustrate how vulnerable even the most mundane products are to problems as they are moved around the world or between neighboring countries. For instance, among the shipments seized in one week last December was a consignment of blueberry juice concentrate found to contain excessive radioactivity as it entered Ireland from the Netherlands. The juice had been made in Austria with Polish fruit. And in early January 2008, Finnish inspectors halted imports of grape seed extract capsules from China because they contained an unauthorized artificial coloring.
The Commission says it wants to launch a worldwide rapid-alert system for food safety, by encouraging nonmember countries to set up their own rapid-alert systems, which could be connected to the EU’s system. But the EU’s existing rapid-alert network has come under criticism from all sides.
One problem is that individual countries’ inspection services do not apply standard safety criteria when analyzing products, says Custaud. He says the process is sufficiently rigorous in most countries in northwestern Europe, but countries in Southern and Eastern Europe are more lax.
Another criticism is that the system is reactive. Food-safety alerts often come from consumers or distributors, who then contact government agencies, which then test suspect products and decide whether to withdraw them from the market.
The Commission’s Benoliel says, “Of course, it is reactive. If we knew in advance that something was a problem, we could take the adequate preventive measures.”
She further defends the approach, saying, “But it does work very quickly, and once a [suspect] product has been detected in one member state, it can be withdrawn across the whole Union.”
Industry also sees flaws in the system. It wants the Commission to focus more on standardizing its food-alert process and on ensuring that staff who must implement it receive adequate training.
Currently, officials do not consult with companies when their products are caught in the system, and the process is too public, says Beate Kettlitz, director for Food Policy, Science, and Research and Development at the Confederation of the Food and Drink Industries, the EU’s main food lobby.
“Those concerned should be involved at the first stage” so that they can remedy the problem, says Kettlitz. She complains that companies’ reputations are affected “whenever each tiny thing is found out.”
Kettlitz notes that “European public perception of food safety is a very, very sensitive issue, and we do not want to scare them. We do not want to give any impression that something is not safe.”
The EU has also announced a plan to streamline customs clearance for all goods while tightening control over supply chains with a new electronic customs system, inspired by the U.S. Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism (C-TPAT) supply-chain security program.
The EU plans to launch a sophisticated computer-based risk-assessment system for all imported products including foodstuffs by July 2009. It is designed to improve screening and would enable computer systems in each of the 27 member states’ customs administrations to communicate with each other and with the Commission’s systems in real time.
The Commission is also developing a prearrival and predeparture notification system, enabling authorities to run computerized risk assessments on each shipment almost instantaneously. To participate, a company must win EU accreditation as an Authorized Economic Operator (AEO). Accreditation is earned by meeting criteria that include stringent internal controls, as well as clean security and safety records.
“Various authorities, including customs, will be monitoring the success and transparency of AEO over the coming years, as they hope to use this tool to ensure compliance with issues like environmental standards and food-safety standards,” says Michel de Jong, senior