Q & A: Defending Retail Food Supplies from Food Terrorism 

By: Jim Armstrong, MS, RS, Program Manager, Environmental Public Health Services, Cuyahoga County Board of Health

In 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued the “Food Safety and Modernization Act (FSMA) Final Rule for Mitigation Strategies to Protect Food Against Intentional Adulteration.” This final rule is “aimed at preventing intentional adulteration from acts intended to cause wide-scale harm to public health, including acts of terrorism targeting the food supply. Such acts, while not likely to occur, could cause illness, death, and economic disruption of the food supply absent mitigation strategies.”

Under this rule, each foreign and domestic food company required to register with the FDA as food facilities under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic (FD&C) Act must identify its vulnerabilities to intentional adulteration, and write a food defense plan designed around mitigation strategies to reduce the likelihood of an attack.

Since retail food businesses are exempt from this FSMA requirement, can we afford to adopt a “wait and see” attitude?

Over the past thirty years alone, intentional adulteration involving chemical, physical, and biological contaminants has touched the retail sector multiple times, grabbing headlines across the country. Motivations have varied, including public fear and revenge to religious, political, and cultural differences, but all have resulted in profound consequences. In 1984, the mass contamination of salad bars with Salmonella typhi in ten Wasco County, Oregon restaurants by members of a cult resulted in 751 severely ill customers. More recently, 48 diners in a Lenexa, Kansas Mexican restaurant were victimized by pesticide-contaminated salsa in 2009. In the spring of 2016, a man sprayed rodenticide onto open food displays in perhaps over a dozen Michigan grocery stores, causing widespread fear.

Terrorists may not distinguish between maliciously attacking large food companies that have implemented food defense strategies, and retail food businesses, which are among the softest of targets, with little to no security measures. Therefore, local health departments should begin having discussions with retail food businesses to assess intentional adulteration vulnerabilities, and implementing simple, low-cost food defense mitigation strategies.

What kinds of suspicious behaviors or situations indicative of intentional adulteration should retail food employees be vigilant for?

Local health departments should train and inform retail food employees on the suspicious behaviors and situations to recognize and report to management. Depending on the severity of each situation, reports would also be forwarded to the local police department and CCBH.

Examples of such behaviors or situations include the following:

  • Taking notes, drawings, photos, or videos of the facility
  • Attempting to gain information in person, by phone, or by email about facility security
  • Conducting surveillance of self-service areas (buffets, condiment areas, open food displays, and open bulk containers)
  • Lingering around self-service areas for extended periods of time without shopping
  • Adding unauthorized “stock” to retail food shelves or “ingredients” to self-service areas
  • Attempting to gain access to “employee only” or restricted areas
  • Not wearing a visitor badge in “employee only” or restricted areas
  • Impersonating a government official
  • Wearing very bulky clothing out of season
  • Appearing emotionally upset
  • Theft of employee uniforms, badges, or packaging labels
  • Abandoned shopping carts or packages
  • Food packaging has been tampered with (damaged packages, evidence of resealing packages, leaking packages)
  • Unattended vehicles illegally parked near the food business
  • Any other behaviors or situations that seem suspicious

Can customers play a role in retail food defense?

Intentional adulteration may also occur within the range of customers, especially in dining rooms and around self-service areas. Thus, it’s important for customers to be aware of and report suspicious behaviors before injury can occur. Local health departments can developed public-facing clings and placards to encourage members of the public to report anything that they think might contaminate food.

How can your health department maintain momentum for retail food defense?

Health departments can work with local, state, and national partners and share resources and tools within the network. One way to embrace retail food defense into everyday activities is to include food defense into your health department’s routine food safety trainings and evaluate food defense during mandated food safety inspections.

Where can I find more information about retail food defense?

If you have questions, or would like more information, please contact:

Jim Armstrong, MS, RS
Program Manager
Environmental Public Health Services
Cuyahoga County Board of Health

About Kim Rodgers

Kim Rodgers serves as a Communications Specialist at NACCHO. Her work includes promoting local health departments' best practices, as well as partner tools and resources, in infectious disease and preparedness through NACCHO's communications channels, storytelling, and outreach to various audiences.

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