ANNAPOLIS – As the FDA implements regulations to protect the nation’s food supply from biological terrorism, the Maryland Department of Agriculture is asking food producers to voluntarily tighten security to prevent attacks.
Maryland Agriculture officials praised food producers for their “vast positive response” to requests for producers to identify vulnerabilities and tighten security.
People are “still learning the ground rules for food surveillance,” and given the uncertain nature of the threats, flexibility is preferable to “counterproductive” hard and fast rules, said John Brooks, the department’s deputy secretary.
The department has focused on doing risk and vulnerability assessments, and advising producers on how to tighten plant security through stronger identification requirements and closer inspection of the shipping process, he said.
For farmers, the focus has mainly been on keeping unauthorized people off the farm said Lynne Hoot, executive director of the Maryland Pork Producers Association.
The other big concern has been controlling the spread of contagious diseases, which is a worry at any time, as demonstrated by the outbreak of hoof- and-mouth disease in England in 2001, and the more recent avian influenza problem in Virginia, she said.
Although food products from a diseased animal could constitute a public health threat, the risk of meat from an infected animal entering the food chain is “very, very minimal,” said Jacob Casper, a veterinarian and coordinator of emergency services for the Maryland Department of Agriculture.
Acting preventively, by making sure that animals are up to date on immunizations and that producers have a good relationship with their veterinarians so diseases can be identified quickly, is central to the state’s recommendations, he said.
For their part, private producers have been working with the Department of Homeland Security to prepare procedures for dealing with a “Code Red” terrorism alert, as well as tightening access to areas where animals are raised, said Ed Nicholson, a spokesman for Tyson Foods, Inc.
Maryland is one of the nation’s largest poultry producers, raising more than 287 million chickens in 2001.
These efforts are part of a continuing process of education on biosecurity that the company has had in place since Sept. 11, 2001, he said.
“We operate in a business that demands a great deal of attention to security anyway, because we’re producing a perishable product which can be tampered with, and we’re continually mindful of that,” Nicholson said.
But in many ways, not much has changed, said Jean Phillips, owner of Phillips’ Farm.
Phillips and her workers have been “constantly on the alert” and kept storage areas locked even before the terrorist attacks, although “usually we were afraid of hammers walking off,” she said.
The farm’s one change, she said, was a decision to load the refrigerator truck in the morning before a delivery, rather than pack it the night before and leave it out and ready to go.
In general, terrorism wasn’t the top concern on farmers’ minds, said Hoot.
“To be honest . . . I’d think that most hog farmers are more concerned about animal rights activists than they are international terrorism,” Hoot said.
Under the Bioterrorism Preparedness Act of 2002, the FDA has proposed regulations including requirements for food processing and storage facilities to register with the federal government, and for food importers to register their cargoes before they arrive at the border.
Farms, retail food outlets and restaurants would not be covered under the proposed regulations.