On and around the recent 10-year anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks, much of the north-east was on high alert – with restrictive security details being dispatched to bridges, transportation hubs, airports and the like. In some sectors, people were encouraged not to travel if not necessary. Well getting on a train, crossing a bridge, or hopping on a plane are easily avoided, or at least delayed, but eating, well, a person has got to eat!
After the historic 2001 attacks, the government agencies scrambled to secure the transportation sector and provide some semblance of safety and security to a nation thrown off balance. Along with transportation and national security, the food defense effort was greatly expanded in 2004 when then-president George W. Bush directed the United States government to create new systems to guard against terrorist attacks. Agencies got money to assess risks, contain foreign disease outbreaks and help farms and food-processing plants develop protection programs. The idea was to secure the food supply and insure that an attack on the nation would not come in the form of a massive tainting of milk, meat, grain, or produce. In some respects one could assert that such safety measures worked, as there has yet to be any such attack on the nations food supply (pay no mind to the numerous food-borne illnesses, caused by negligence not terrorism, that have happened in the last decade, including the salmonella-tainted eggs that sickened almost 2,000 people), but the efforts put forth to protect the nations food supplies seem to have fallen short in providing real security – whatever that might be.
According to an AP report, this past week, a Senate subcommittee held a hearing to examine a congressional watchdog’s new report revealing federal setbacks in protecting cattle and crops since Sept. 11. The hearing revealed that:
“The fragmented system leaves no single agency accountable, at times slowing progress and blurring the lines of responsibility. Federal auditors found one Agriculture Department surveillance program to test for chemical, biological, and radiological agents was not working properly five years after its inception in part because agencies couldn’t agree on who was in control.”
And John Hoffman, a former Department of Homeland Security senior adviser, testified at the hearing insisting, “We may be blindsided by an intentional food-based attack on this nation sometime soon.” While some government officials contend that progress has been made, many feel the bureaucratic bungling and general confusion as to whose job it is to insure which sector (USDA? FDA? Homeland Security?) has left the country’s food supply wide open to chemical and/or biological tampering.
The answer to the question, “how safe is our food supply?” might never be answered with any real confidence. In reality, no amount of security can, or will, ever insure us against nefarious and subversive acts. And, as is evidenced by the many recalls and food-borne sicknesses over the last decade, we likely are much more vulnerable to sickness from the laxity of industrial food supply than from an organized terrorist act. Still, how can the government get it together to make us all feel a bit safer about what we eat? Is safety an unrealistic prospect? Do you feel any safer about what you eat? Do you worry about your food being subject to terrorist tampering?