Why would someone want to mess with food?

Posted in Consumer on Oct 08, 2018

As long as food has been traded, there have been those who have sought to gain more out of the trade equation than their trading partners; from bulking out wine with the addition of water (a trick of the Roman empire), through to the modern-day addition of water to frozen vegetables (to increase bag weight)! These manipulations are dishonest, sometimes harmful and always motivated by financial or commercial gain, are commonly referred to as ‘food fraud’ and are talked about regularly at several different meetings.

It’s time to talk about something different, something far more dangerous, and dark. Something that threatens all of us who eat… food terrorism - deliberately tampering with the food system to cause harm. Food fraudsters are, generally, about making a quick buck – they want to stay in business, so anyone dying or getting sick could jeopardise their marketing objectives. Food terrorism, on the other hand, is because the perpetrators want people to hurt; whether that is the consumers who eat the product, or the company (or country) that produces it.

In 2004, retiring Secretary of the US Health and Human Services, Tommy G Thompson is quoted as saying “I, for the life of me, cannot understand why the terrorists have not, you know, attacked our food supply because it is so easy to do”. There are even reports of material being found in 2001 in Afghanistan that indicated an interest by al-Qaeda in plant and animal diseases. Yet, the evidence around food terrorism is, fortunately, that it does not happen on a regular basis and often it is the threat of terrorism that occurs rather than the act itself. As examples: in February 2011 a South African farmer threatened to release Foot and Mouth disease in Britain (because he thought Britain was responsible for the actions of Robert Mugabe). In 1989, a left-wing Chilean group claimed to have injected cyanide into grapes exported to the US; thousands of boxes of fruit were opened and, ultimately, inspectors found two grapes containing small amounts of cyanide. More recently, in 2014, an aggrieved businessman claimed that 1080 (sodium fluoroacetate) was to be introduced into infant milk powder in New Zealand. He was found guilty of blackmail and the estimated cost to the country was more than $37million NZD.

Different countries have different mechanisms and agencies to deal with the threat of food terrorism. In the US, the FDA’s Food Safety and Modernization Act (FSMA) includes requirements to reduce the likelihood of intentional adulteration (which food terrorism falls under) and includes mechanisms such as vulnerability assessments, mitigation planning and ongoing monitoring. In reality, vulnerability assessments are a significant undertaking for large scale food processes who may source raw ingredients from a variety of suppliers and countries. The process of undertaking a vulnerability assessment does introduce a robust process into food production and serves to highlight where weaknesses in the supply chain may exist.

While regulators have the systems and processes to keep us safe and to respond when threats are reported, introducing fear into food supply chains is not that difficult. Take, for example, the recent case of needles found in strawberries in Australia and then in New Zealand. These actions hit consumers at the most basic level; we expect to be able to trust the food we put on our plate. So, what is the real risk and how can we individually mitigate that risk?

Firstly, we need some perspective. Deliberate manipulation of food, to cause harm is rare. A useful systematic review of confirmed food defence incidents for the period 1950-2008 was reported by Dalziel (2009). That author broke the food supply chain down into its contributing parts, namely: water supply, pre-harvest (animal and plant production), post-harvest, product assembly, processing, packaging and storage, retail and food service, and, consumer and home. He then looked at the number of cases that occurred at each site, the types of agents used (for example: pesticide, sarin, rat poison), the number of fatalities and the number of people injured.

The first point to note, according to Dalziel’s review of cases, is that the number of incidents per year has been trending up. The second thing of note is that, as the author states “It is at the very bottom of the food supply chain where we find the greatest number of cases, 75 per cent. Typically, these involve a relative, neighbour, acquaintance, or co-worker attempting to harm a specific individual by contaminating food or beverages” (pg 17). If history is to teach us anything then it would appear we are most at risk closest to home; and no matter how many metal detectors are installed within packing facilities, the danger may actually be at the table with us. Does this mean that food companies are absolved of responsibility? Not at all, they have an important role to play in ensuring that food is safe when it leaves their facility but the ultimate decision about what is safe to put in our mouth is our own call. Simply being alert to packaging that looks damaged, product that is too cheap, or product that doesn’t smell, look, or taste ‘right’ is the consumers equivalent to a metal detector, and it’s up to us to use it.

*GR Dalziel (2009). Food Defence Incidents 1950-2008: a chronology and analysis of incidents involving the malicious contamination of the food supply chain. Nanyang Technological University.