A global food system requires vigilance. That’s why the U’s Food Protection and Defense Institute exists.
By Greg Breining
Americans eat from a buffet line that reaches across the continent and around the world. According to the Federation of American Scientists, the U.S. food system includes some 2 million farms, 167,000 processing and manufacturing plants, warehouses, and distribution centers, some of them overseas.
“We really are globally connected,” says Amy Kircher, director of the University of Minnesota’s Food Protection and Defense Institute (FPDI). “When someone says, ‘I eat local,’ I wonder, Do you truly eat local? Because if you added pepper, you didn’t eat local.”
“You can choose not to live next to a nuclear facility. You can choose not to fly. You can't choose to avoid eating.”
While this global system has benefits, it also has a drawback: The food supply is vulnerable to disease, contamination, even terrorism. An introduced pathogen could cause crops to fail or force the slaughter of millions of animals. Toxic chemicals or radioactive isotopes could contaminate food for millions. The Department of Homeland Security estimated an infection of foot-and-mouth disease among Great Plains cattle could cost more than $50 billion. According to a Stanford researcher, just 4 grams of botulinum toxin dropped into a milk production facility could sicken or kill up to 400,000 Americans.
Identifying vulnerabilities and devising ways to eliminate them is the mission of the FPDI, one of several academic centers across the nation funded primarily by the Department of Homeland Security to study vulnerability to terrorism and other disruptions. The institute is the only one that focuses on food. “We’re part of Homeland Security. But we protect your dinner,” Kircher says.
To illustrate the far-reaching nature of food, Kircher cites the number of ingredients—84—in the typical restaurant cheeseburger. The bun alone contains 32 ingredients and the beef patty three. Packaged cheese slices, 19; pickles, 10; ketchup 8, and mustard 9. Then there’s lettuce, tomato, and onion.
“Eighty-four different ingredients. And 84 different supply chains that have to be managed just to produce that cheeseburger,” says Kircher. “Truly we eat globally. While that’s a great benefit—you get strawberries in December—there are vulnerabilities inherent in that. There’s transportation. There are multiple handlers. There are also different standards depending on the country.”
When the institute started as the National Center for Food Protection and Defense in 2004, its top priority was identifying how a terrorist strike might happen and how to prevent it. There’s a long, if not extensive history of weaponizing food. German saboteurs during World War I infected Allied horses, sheep, and cattle with anthrax and glanders, a contagious, usually fatal bacterial infection. The United States and Canada secretly developed diseases to use against cattle during World War II. During the Cold War, the United States stockpiled anti-crop diseases. The Soviet Union had an anti-agricultural warfare program code-named Ecology.
In 1984, a cult in Oregon infected salad bars with salmonella to make its opponents too sick to vote in county elections. More than 700 were made ill. “We’ve identified documents and calls by jihadist groups to poison food and water,” says Kircher. No actual attacks have come to light, but “I think that threat still exists. It certainly is, we might say, low probability but very high consequence.”
More recently, the institute has turned some attention to more ordinary threats.
The first is simple food safety: the accidental contamination of food between farm and fork. Recent examples include E. coli contamination at several Chipotle restaurants and salmonella from California pistachios sold in at least nine states.
More insidious is what Kircher calls “economically motivated adulteration.” One example is the recent revelation that some brands of so-called 100 percent grated Parmesan cheese were more than 8 percent wood pulp.
The industrial chemical melamine has been added to foods such as watered-down milk to falsely boost the protein content. In 2008, melamine contamination of infant formula sickened an estimated 300,000 babies in China.
Honey, Kircher says, is a prime example of a product that travels far and can be contaminated with products such as the antibiotic chloramphenicol—illegal in the United States but sometimes found in Chinese bee products.
Kircher cited another example: peanut protein residue found in cumin, apparently added for color. That cosmetic deception could be deadly to those with peanut allergies. Says Kircher, “How would you as a consumer even know to think you might see peanut proteins show up in a spice?”
Even as new cases of adulteration come to light, researchers can’t say if the problem is getting worse. “Is it increasing?” Kircher asks. “We’re not sure yet because we didn’t do a good job of identifying it to start with.”
Answering questions like that is at the heart of the institute’s mission. Researchers at the institute have investigated how to better use consumer complaints as a basis for early detection of food-borne illness. Others are developing rapid detection methods for identifying anthrax, ricin, melamine, and other contaminants, and have developed guidelines to improve communication between agencies during a food illness outbreak.
When Ebola swept through several West African countries in 2014, people immediately wondered if the virus might hitch a ride on imported foodstuffs. “Really quickly we were able to pull together a team of experts from our group and the College of Veterinary Medicine to specifically look at that problem. That, to me, is a real unique capability that exists here,” says Kircher.
There’s no alternative to confronting these dangers head on, she says. “If you look at the other critical infrastructures, you can choose not to live next to a nuclear facility. You can choose not to fly. You can’t choose to avoid eating.”
The typical restaurant cheeseburger contains 84 ingredients. The meat in a single burger can come from numerous sources, an example of the vulnerability that the Food Protection and Defense Institute is working to address.
Hamburger bun - Ingredients: unbleached bread flour (wheat flour, malted barley flour, niacin, iron, thiamin mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid), water, sugar, yeast, palm oil, egg yolks, honey, salt, nonfat milk, shortening (hydrogenated soybean oil, water, monoglycerides, propionic acid, and phosphoric acid), whole eggs, malt (malted barley, wheat flour, dextrose), vinegar, cultured wheat starch, wheat flour, citric acid, wheat flour, ascorbic acid (vitamin C), enzymes
Mustard - Ingredients: distilled vinegar, water, #1 grade mustard seed, salt, turmeric, paprika, spice, natural flavors and garlic powder
Hamburger patty- Ingredients: ground beef, black peppercorns, sea salt
Ketchup - Ingredients: corn syrup, distilled vinegar, high fructose corn syrup, natural flavoring, onion powder, salt, spice, tomato concentrate
Pickles - Ingredients: cucumbers, water, distilled vinegar, salt, calcium chloride, polysorbate 80, garlic, natural spice flavors, turmeric oleoresin, Yellow 5
Cheese - Ingredients: cheddar cheese (milk, cheese culture, salt, enzymes), whey, milk, milk protein concentrat-e, milkfat, whey protein concentrate, sodium citrate, calcium phosphate, salt, lactic acid, annatto and paprika extract, natamycin, enzymes, cheese culture, vitamin D3