WASHINGTON – Anthrax fears have area supermarkets fielding calls from concerned customers who worry those sugary substances or powdery residues on their groceries could be the deadly spore.
“There have been a lot of concerns about white powder on products,” said Jamie Miller, public affairs manager for Giant Food Inc. “We’ve had numerous customer calls. Sometimes they will find sugar on a product and panic.”
Grocers and police said they have investigated each complaint, and not turned up any legitimate threat. State officials and merchants also said they are confident that current food inspection and surveillance methods are sufficient to catch a potential bioterrorist attack.
“We have launched no specific initiatives” to confront food-borne terrorism, said Don Vandry, a state Agriculture Department spokesman.
“Because the food safety system is pretty well established as it is, and because of heightened awareness, no additional measure have been taken,” he said.
The Department of Health and Mental Hygiene is also operating under normal procedures, testing when it has reason to believe there may be foreign substances in food. But it is also looking at different ways it might respond, officials said.
“We are not specifically monitoring at this point for anthrax, but the health department as a whole has the authority to secure and destroy any food that might be contaminated,” said Alan Taylor, the department’s director of food protection and consumer health.
Supermarkets in the state have not changed security routines either, but they said they have been keeping a closer watch over food since Sept. 11, in part to allay customers’ fears.
Karen Brown, senior vice president of Food Marketing Institute, said shoppers are just now starting to notice powders that have long been used in the packaging of products: frozen novelties have a cornstarch substance to prevent them from sticking together, for example.
“Now people are more sensitive to these kinds of things,” said Brown, whose organization represents food retailers and wholesalers.
Greg TenEyck, director of public affairs for the eastern division of Safeway Inc., said industry concern with food tampering has not relaxed since 1982 when someone laced Tylenol with cyanide, killing seven people in the Chicago area.
Brown said security programs that were put in place after the Tylenol scare are being looked at again for “any potential areas for improvement.” She said the industry has also been focusing on security surveillance and employee screening.
Even though there has never been a deliberate contamination of food in the state, TenEyck said Safeway has been keeping a close eye on store security.
“Although there might not be a person physically standing in the produce department, there are security and surveillance efforts going on in our stores,” he said.
Besides video surveillance, he said employees are trained to call security if they notice anything suspicious, a policy that is in place “365 days a year.”
Giant Food is doing “nothing out of the ordinary” either, Miller said, but their stores are on alert.
“Our stores do have video cameras, especially in areas of high theft, so we can monitor if there is something suspicious,” he said.
Andrew Klein, of Klein’s Supermarkets in Harford County, said his employees and customers have been cautious and perceptive, but they have not raised any anthrax fears.
“Customers are pretty conscientious,” Klein said. “They wouldn’t pick up a bottle of milk if the seal was broken and the container was half-empty.”
If someone was concerned about something they bought, they can bring it back to the store, he said.
“If something looks a little funny, don’t eat it,” he said. “We don’t give customers a hard time if they want to bring something back.”
Klein conceded that there is only so much a grocer and a shopper can do.
“There are probably a thousand ways in which some crazy could contaminate products and you are at risk, every time you drive down the road, every time you eat something, every day,” Klein said. “We’re at risk every second that we are alive, but basic care and concern are our safeguards.”
The key is to be on guard, he said, but do not panic. And if a shopper is really worried about contaminated food, “stick it in the microwave — that will kill everything.”