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Is our food supply at risk to a terror attack?

Minnpost Asks: Shaun Kennedy

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security recently granted $20 million for the National Center for Food Protection and Defense at the University of Minnesota to help protect the nation’s food supply from sabotage. Shaun Kennedy, the center’s director, talked about the risks and strategies:

MinnPost: Destroying an enemy’s ability to feed itself is an ancient war tactic, right?

Shaun Kennedy:
Both disrupting an enemy’s ability to feed itself as well as contaminating the food that is available have been war tactics dating back to ancient Greece.

MP: How common has it been in modern times?

Food as a war tool was most recently used by the Japanese in China and Manchuria during World War II. They experimented with various ways of contaminating food with bacterial pathogens such as plague, anthrax and others.

MP: Where do food contamination threats rank now compared with other tactics — say, attacks on airports?

You can go back to former Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thomson for at least one government official’s perspective. On his last day in office in 2004 he was famously quoted as saying, “I cannot understand why the terrorists have not attacked the food supply because it is so easy to do.”

Shaun Kennedy
Shaun Kennedy

Our researchers have done survey work using representative samples. They find an interesting dichotomy. Of all the various terrorism events that are possible — say attacks on airports, the energy grid …and food — people ranked food as the one least likely to occur in the next five years. But they also ranked food as the one we should invest the most to protect.

We believe that goes to this simple point: You can’t take yourself out of the food system. You don’t have to get on a train or a plane. But you do have to eat. You are always a target.

MP: I could see a food security strategy playing out in a movie — maybe directed by the Coen brothers — with government agents in seed caps and overalls snooping around Midwestern farms. In reality, though, I suspect much of this is highly technical laboratory work. Right?

Our work ranges from very basic bench science all the way through social sciences of risk communication. One example is a project utilizing aptamers (biological sleuths that bind to certain molecules) attached to electrospun nanowires.  You know you have the target bacteria when the electrical properties of the nanowires are changed. Our researchers have developed aptamers that would capture Bacillus anthracis which is anthrax.

MP: Where would they be deployed?

You could put a sensor in a fluid processing line — for example, in a milk plant. Or you could have it in a test kit for use on samples of food you have to homogenize, like hot dogs. You could use the test kit anywhere from a farm to food processing facilities to a restaurant.

MP: Minnesota sits in the middle of the nation’s larder, the region that produces the bulk of the grain, soybeans, meat and milk. For that reason, does this region fit centrally into food defense strategies?

Minnesota and the Midwest play a very important role. One of the reasons we were successful in initially obtaining a grant from Homeland Security was because of our partnership with all of the private sector firms in the Upper Midwest that are major contributors to the food system: Cargill, General Mills, Hormel, Malt-o-Meal, ADM, Kraft and other companies.

MP: How, specifically, could those companies help protect the food supply?

A firm could use new tools we have developed to identify its greatest vulnerabilities. . . Say that Hormel decided to focus on marinated pork tenderloins. They might determine that within the entire supply chain — the tenderloin as well as the seasoning that go in the marinade — they consider one or two points to pose the greatest risk or vulnerability of contamination. At those points they could deploy one of the detection systems under development by our center.

MP: What do you see as the top potential food threats? 

The greatest threat or vulnerability isn’t a specific food. It’s the possibility that someone employed by a food firm is intent on causing harm. An insider attack presents much greater vulnerability and bypasses many of the mitigation strategies in place.

MP: We have so many scares about non-intentional contaminants in our food — from hamburger to spinach. When these incidents are investigated, does someone routinely look into the possibility it was sabotage?

Yes….And if a pattern of illness looks a little different from normal, then investigators are going to more actively look at questions of whether this could be intentional. That’s happened on many outbreaks. 

MP: Your center has worked on this food security problem since 2004. Are we close to being sufficiently protected? 

The agencies that were established to protect the food system from unintentional contamination were put in place more than 100 years ago. And we still have food-borne illness outbreaks on a regular basis. If it’s that easy for it to happen unintentionally, think about it happening intentionally. We are not yet where we would like to be. And it will take a long time before we get to where we can even be comfortable.

Sharon Schmickle writes about national and foreign affairs and science. She can be reached at sschmickle [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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