KANSAS CITY, Mo. – During a keynote address at this week’s International Symposium on Agroterrorism, Alfred Almanza, administrator of the US Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, outlined many of the efforts the agency and the meat and poultry processing industry have committed to protect the food supply chain. Almanza’s presentation was part of a three-day conference presented by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Heart of America Joint Terrorism Task Force.

The agency addresses food defense using a three-pronged approach, Almanza said, including: preparation and prevention; surveillance; and response. FSIS encourages the voluntary use of food-defense plans to protect not only consumers, but the processing companies as well as the companies’ employees.

“At FSIS we want to make sure that meat, poultry and processed egg products are safe from illness-causing pathogens, whether introduced intentionally or unintentionally,” he said.

To facilitate these efforts, FSIS has conducted more than 20 vulnerability assessments to identify weaknesses and develop countermeasures. It also promotes the use of food-defense plans by manufacturing facilities as part of its outreach efforts and conducts surveys of the industry to gauge the readiness in the event of a breach to the food supply.

The vulnerability assessments are used to identify which products are most susceptible and where intentional contamination could most likely occur. Potential threat agents are also identified as part of the assessments as are potential countermeasures to the threats. The effectiveness of the assessments depends on the collaboration of public and private interests from federal, state and local levels. Deployment of resources and countermeasure development are based on these assessments.

“Food defense is as much a part of our mission to protect public health as our work to prevent foodborne illness,” Almanza said.

The vulnerability assessments brought to light some specific products that concern FSIS officials. Some of the product categories vulnerable to intentional contamination mentioned by Almanza were combos of ground beef and deli meat in addition to products targeting children and elderly people, such as hot dogs and other ready-to-eat items. Operational areas that have been identified as potential week links include mixing and grinding procedures. Almanza also mentioned the absence of tamper-evident packaging as a vulnerability in the food-supply chain.

Assessments are used to develop web-based guidance and outreach for the industry to prevent intentional contamination. Agreements with trading partners to exchange information, identify and address food-defense threats and regularly test response plans are also part of the FSIS strategy. “It’s in the interest of all of us to protect the global food supply,” he said.

Having conducted five vulnerability surveys of plants since 2006, Almanza said a growing number of plants have voluntarily implemented food-defense plans each year. According to the August 2010 survey, 97 percent of large plants had a plan in place, followed by 82 percent of small plants and 64 percent of very small plants, for an average of approximately 74 percent of all federally inspected facilities.

FSIS also works with its international partners to address threats to the food-security system. The agency depends on collaboration with local and national law enforcement authorities as part of its efforts to prevent, identify and respond to any threats.

FSIS, the Food and Drug Administration and the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service also regularly offer Food Defense Awareness Training to food companies wanting to teach employees about their role in food defense.