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February 10, 2003   Email to Friend 

Debra Davis
(334) 613-4686
February 10, 2003

AUBURN, Ala. - The World Health Organization's recent warning about potential bioterrorist threats to the food supply is cause for concern but not panic, says one expert.

In a 45-page special report, the WHO, the United Nation's health agency, warned that terrorist groups may ultimately target national food supplies and has advised national governments around the world to take adequate precautions.

It sounds scary enough. But how serious is the threat?

It is a threat, says Dr. Jean Weese, an Alabama Cooperative Extension System food scientist and Auburn University associate professor of food science. But considering the size and complexity of the American food-processing system, she believes the chances of a knockout blow to the nation's food supply following a bioterrorist attack are probably remote.

One thing working in Americans' favor not only is the size of its food system but the rigorous safeguards that already have been put in place along the distribution chains - many of which were around long before the 9/11 attacks.

If you want to affect masses of people -- which is what the terrorists typically want to do -- you would probably have to get into several food-processing plants," Weese says. "Yes, it could be done, but pulling it off would be a real feat."

"Just consider the plants that supply meat to McDonald's," Weese says. "You don't just have one processing plant, but many -- one for the West, the Midwest, the Southeast and so on. So even if you manage to contaminate one, you'll never succeed in getting them all."

Aside from that, Weese says, virtually all of these plants operate like sealed fortresses, cordoned off by fences and monitored by security guards who carefully screen who comes and goes.

"When you visit a processing plant, you typically have to tell the guard who you are, where you're from, and what purpose you have in there," Weese says. "And even then, to get into the processing area, you typically have to put on special clothing."

So, it is possible for a bioterrorist act to occur in one of these facilities, but it's not a simple matter of walking right in and dropping the contaminant in the food, she said.

Since the 9/11 tragedy, many processing plants are enforcing even stricter rules -- a fact Weese has encountered firsthand in the course of organizing plant tours for her food science students.

"Some plants are now so strict that they won't even allow most visitors into the facility," she says. "It's partly because of the chance one of them could get hurt but also because of concerns that contamination could occur."

Some plants are even requiring visitors to give their names, personal addresses and, in some cases, their social security numbers so they can be more easily tracked down in the event a problem occurs, she said.

Aside from the internal plant procedures, processors also maintain strict rules for food products coming out of the plant.

"Seals generally are placed on the trucks carrying products out of the plant and are not broken until the driver reaches his destination," Weese says. "And if these seals are broken for whatever reason, the company to which the products are being shipped typically won't accept them."

Major food processors, almost without exception, also subject their foods to onerous safety standards, Weese says. In Alabama, for example, a peanut processor that supplies national companies such as Baskin-Robbins and Keebler tests every batch of processed peanuts to ensure that residual levels of microorganisms do not exceed a certain level. Products that exceed this level are discarded.

The type of food products most vulnerable to bioterrorism remains unprocessed foods, such as raw fruits and vegetables. But even these products most often are subjected to random testing along the food distribution chain.

"If they've been shipped in from overseas, they'll typically undergo random testing at the port into which they've been shipped," Weese says. "And since the vast majority of these products will end up in retail outlets, you can almost rest assured that these retail companies have a system in place for random testing as well."

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