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The Many Faces of Food Security
Despite its Wording, it’s Not What Many Think It Is
by Mark A. Desorbo
When the term “food security” is spoken, one may conjure the images of a terrorist tainting the food supply as part of some covert operation. While that is very much a real threat in post-9/11 times, food security’s image is far from one-dimensional protection from terrorist attacks. In fact, food security is an ever-changing enigma with many faces, some of which threaten the safety and quality of food in all stages of the farm-to-fork supply chain.
And the disguises, if not personas, make food security even more elusive. There’s the careless warehouse worker urinating near packaged produce, the deceptive woman who planted a severed finger in some chili in an attempt to scam Wendy’s and the aloof waiter who served degreaser over a salad because the cleaning crew left behind a jug of what looked red wine vinegar.
Food security also comes into play in natural disasters, like Hurricane Katrina and most recently, the illnesses and deaths stemming from foodborne pathogens and avian flu. [See “News and Notes, p. 12.] It even has bipolar tendencies – in government speak “food insecurity” is a sanitized term from USDA to delineate poverty and hunger.
“Food security by its wording is not what you think it is,” says Gary Ades, president of G & L Consulting Group (Bentonville, Ark.) and a member of Food Quality’s editorial advisory panel.
Randall Atlas, vice president of Atlas Safety and Security Design, a Miami, Fla.-based consulting firm that helps the food industry bolster security and safety, agrees, noting that security needs to be an extension of quality.
“Security takes on many different shapes and sizes,” he says. “It’s not always about an act of terrorism. It’s a matter of protecting the sanctity of products and services.”
Ades, Atlas and Gordon Meriwether, principal of food safety consulting firm, The Uriah Group (Falls Church, Va.), are presenting conference tracks on security at the Food Safety & Security Summit, March 6-8, at the Washington, D.C. Convention Center.
The three conference presenters along with Jeff Nelken, a food forensics and food safety expert based in Woodland Hills, Calif., spoke with Food Quality and provided insight on everything from the root of food security’s meaning to assessing and minimizing risk to pointing out where food safety falls on the priority list. All agreed that every link of the supply chain needs to be prepared for food safety crises no matter what ugly head is proverbially reared.
The Face(s) of Food Security
The perception of food security has certainly changed in the last decade, which has ushered in not only the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, but also the largest meat recalls in history, illnesses and death from foodborne pathogens, anthrax and avian flu.
Federal agencies certainly bolstered food defenses in the wake of the terrorists’ attacks with the Bioterrorism Act of 2002. Specifically, “Title III: Protecting Safety and Security of Food and Drug Supply” aims to combat food adulteration as well as develop crisis communications and education strategies with respect to bioterrorist threats to the food supply with federal agencies, the food industry, consumer and producer groups, scientific organizations, and local health departments. [See www.fda. gov/oc/bioterrorism/PL107-188.html#title3.]
The true face of food security, however, is not solely that of a terrorist, a disgruntled, tampering employee or the victim of an outbreak. To know food security, one must first look into the eyes of the needy, according to the United Nations and the USDA.
Two commonly used definitions of food security come from the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the USDA.
According to the FAO, food security “exists when all people, at all times, have access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.”
The USDA says food security for a household “means access by all members at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life. Food security includes at a minimum (1) the ready availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods, and (2) an assured ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways (that is, without resorting to emergency food supplies, scavenging, stealing or other coping strategies).”
Melaku Ayalew, an independent consultant on disaster management and food security in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, wrote that the stages of food insecurity range from food secure situations to full-scale famine.
“Famine and hunger are both rooted in food insecurity,” Ayalew wrote in an article, “What is Food Security and Famine and Hunger?” “Food insecurity can be categorized as either chronic or transitory. Chronic food insecurity translates into a high degree of vulnerability to famine and hunger; ensuring food security presupposes elimination of that vulnerability. [Chronic] hunger is not famine. It is similar to undernourishment and is related to poverty. [It exists] mainly in poor countries.”
And the United States isn’t immune to it. In 2005, the USDA reported that 11 percent of all Americans are “food insecure.” That means 12 million households — 35 million people, including 13 million children – are hungry or living on the edge of hunger. It also means they are too poor to eat balanced meals or they skipped meals because there was not enough money for food.
“I don’t think food professionals understand the strict definitions and they tend to lump a lot of meanings together,” says Ades, who is presenting “Lessons Learned from Planning for a Crisis” at the Summit. “That’s my perception. We are in crisis right now with 13 million kids in the United States being hungry. There is no reason for people to be hungry in this country. We are the wealthiest country in the world, why are people going hungry?”
While his forte is assisting food professionals to plan for crises, Ades believes that food insecurity needs to be addressed.
He noted an editorial by Julianne Malveaux – a writer for Progressive Media Project, an affiliate of The Progressive magazine – stating that allocating more money for food stamps and school breakfast and lunch programs would go a long way toward eliminating food insecurity.
Ades echoed Malveaux, suggesting that promoting ways to financially support food banks and other charitable organizations will ensure enough food is being supplied safely and to the right people.
“I don’t think the magnitude of hungry kids is really understood,” Ades says. “We need to take care of children. We need to figure out who needs [food] and how to get it to them. We should have a ready food supply for everybody in the United States.”
Such an effort, Malveaux says, does not seem to be a priority at a time when balancing the budget while fighting and funding the War on Terror take precedence. “[Bush] might note that both domestically and internationally, the fight to eradicate hunger has a direct bearing on our national security,” she wrote. “Hungry people do desperate things, often for small sums of money.”
It’s that type of desperation that is one of the greatest threats to not only food security, but to the economy, says Uriah Group’s Meriwether, who will present “Food Security: A Live Exercise Drill” at the Summit.
“We are still very susceptible. Food is the underpinning of the U.S. economy that has been ignored far too long. You need food to live, and if you take it away, you will create panic very quickly,” he says. “The terrorist don’t have to be the reason to take the economy to its knees.”
Food Quality caught Meriwether by cell phone at a Starbucks in Atlanta, where he was scheduled to talk about food safety and security to health care and hospital workers. He stepped outside to speak with Food Quality for fear that the conversation might cause concern or fear among café patrons.
It happened once before, he said, in a restaurant. Wait staff overheard a conversation Meriwether was having about food safety and security with clients and colleagues. The restaurant staff apparently misinterpreted what was going on and called police, who questioned the group’s activities only to learn that there was no cause for alarm.
“You have to define security,” he says. “It can involve anything. It can involve a natural disaster like Hurricane Katrina. It can involve a shortage of workers or a shortage of food. It could also be a misunderstanding.”
The most effective way to combat any type of food insecurity, Meriwether says, is to build partnerships, not with just federal agencies, but also with local enforcement, hospitals and other community organizations.
“The biggest thing we try to do is help build partnerships. That’s what really saves lives, businesses and communities,” he says. “That means seeing if the local Burger King could help supply food in the event of natural disaster or food crisis. It’s not just the number of people who get sick. It’s the loss of jobs and the impact on the economy.”
Meriwether points out that FDA only inspects three percent of the food that comes into the United States, as federal agencies tend to rely on the local health departments for the bulk of the enforcement.
That has proven tough for the some 500 health inspectors in California’s Los Angeles County, which has more than 52,000 food establishments.
And the enforcement of health codes – or lack thereof – in Southern California has lured the cameras of the mainstream media, exposing the food securities face of indifference and revealing that with unhygienic and careless food service employees working with goods to feed the masses, who needs terrorists?
The coverage from NBC4 TV in Los Angeles was the result of a four-month undercover investigation by Joel Grover and Matt Goldberg at the Seventh Street Produce Market in Downtown L.A. —where thousands of Southern California restaurants and stores get their fruits and vegetables.
Perhaps the most shocking piece of footage was of a vendor urinating near boxed produce. “I saw you going to the bathroom right around boxes of food,” Grover said to the man.
The filthy footage, however, didn’t stop there. Workers dumped trash wherever they pleased. There were even shots of workers picking up produce off the sludgy ground, and selling it as if it were clean.
Produce was stored right next to portable toilets and garbage dumpsters. Rats were also commonplace, feasting on fruits and vegetables, according to the workers.
“Are there rats?” an NBC4 employee asked a worker at the market.
“Oh, big ones. Boy, they love it in here,” the worker replied.
Nelken, a food safety consultant who operates www.foodsafetycoach.com, was the expert NBC4 turned to for insight. He tells Food Quality that worker indifference, lack of pest management or HACCP programs and lack of enforcement are huge food security breaches that invite a host of troubles.
“This is a produce market that people thought was just supplying restaurants, but they were selling to everybody and it fell through the health department cracks,” he says. “You cannot always rely on the health department. This is good example.”
Nelken says the undercover investigation also found other serious health code violations, like in the bathrooms for market workers. There was no hot water and no way to turn it on. The janitor told reporters there’s never any soap. In fact, every day, NBC4 recorded workers using the toilets and then touching food without washing their hands with soap and hot water.
But perhaps the biggest health hazard NBC4 documented was water spilling out of pipes.
“The water smelled like raw sewage and [it] was splashing onto boxes of produce that were often sitting in that water,” according to the report. The television station took samples and had them analyzed at a lab, which found high levels E. coli, fecal coli forms and Listeria.
“Listeria and E. coli were found,” Nelken adds. “Then people want to know why there’s an outbreak.”
NBC4 suggested that actions from L.A.’s Department of Human Health only seemed to become aggressive after the undercover news team started asking questions. In another hidden-camera scene, the chief investigator actually warned produce vendors that NBC4 was investigating.
“We’ve been kind of lenient, awfully lenient with you guys,” one investigator caught on tape said.
The complete story as well as responses from health officials can be found by logging onto www.nbc4.tv/news/10904280/detail.html?taf=la
Officials from two franchise restaurants that received produce from Seventh Street, Johnny Rockets and Pita Pita, said in statements that they will stop using produce from there.
In a statement, Johnny Rockets said, “We have taken appropriate actions to ensure that this produce supplier will not be delivering Seventh Street Produce Market products to any Johnny Rockets restaurants.”
Giving Security a Familiar, Friendlier Face
Exposing food security’s many faces is a matter of understanding that it is simply a component of quality control, says Atlas, of Atlas Safety and Security Design.
You have to conduct a threat, risk and vulnerability assessment,” he says. “You have to determine what are you trying to prevent, what you are fearful will happen and what are the chances that it will happen. You have to ask how important is it to protect it?”
Atlas is presenting a two-part session at the Summit on “What’s the Worst That Can Happen?” He says the security of the future is all about seals. Another measure of good food security is to have back-up generators to power refrigeration if the power goes out.
“As product leaves the farm or processor, the security of the product seals as well as those on cargo trucks and at receiving or loading areas from port to port is very important,” he says. “It’s the next big link when things are falling off the truck, literally and figuratively.”
Nelken takes the measure of security a step further saying a lot could happen in an open field.
“CNN had me go up to Salinas and I was standing in a field with a camera crew for about an hour,” he says. “The question came up about security issues; could the E. coli outbreak have been a terrorist attack? I didn’t want to get into it, but I did mention to the reporter that we had been standing there for 30 to 45 minutes and no one had approached us to ask what we were doing there.”
There were no fences or signs indicating that it was private property, he says. “They should have at least had a couple of cameras to monitor what’s going on,” Nelken adds. Often, he says, food safety resources are mismanaged and fall low on the priority list.
“One example is that most establishments, casinos and restaurants particularly, have incredible control over the booze, but when it comes to the chemicals they clean with, they don’t have a clue,” Nelken explains. “In most establishments, they have a lot of control over the liquor because that’s a profit driven area. They never think that the chemicals could cost them as much as they make with the liquor.”
Remember the waiter who served the degreaser as a salad dressing?
“What happens is a lot of facilities have cleaning crews that come in at night, and rarely is there a check to make sure that cleaning supplies have not been left behind,” Nelken says. “What I recommend to companies is to keep the cleaning chemicals on one cart.”
Even dispensing it, he says, there should be a program and safeguards in place. Some employees have chemicals hidden away in their lockers. These chemicals are perhaps preferences for jobs they do, but from a security stand point, any cleaning chemical needs to be logged on a material safety data sheets (MSDSs)
“Sometimes a bartender will be given a trial-size spray cleaner that they will use to control pests, like fruit flies,” Nelken explains. “A bartender is not a licensed pest control technician. Residue could be left behind and people can get sick. Part of security is making sure the MSDSs are kept up to date. If there is an accident, there could be fines and injuries. If someone brings you a sample of something, make sure you have it on the MSDS.”
Protocols for recalls, laboratory practices and even computer and electrical back-ups, he says, are expressions on food security’s proverbial face. “What if you lose the integrity of your piping system?” Nelken exclaims. “What if the sewage gets backed up? Are you prepared? Do you have a procedure in place?”
Visitors to food processing plants or farm should not have free reign, like the camera crew from NBC4. “There needs to be some kind of security,” Nelken explains. “Can people come in through the roof or can just anyone walk through a door that should not have been left open? I go into places and they take my driver’s license and they give me a visitor’s badge. Visitors need to be accompanied through the visit.”
Equally important to securing the facility or farm is ensuring the workforce has integrity.
“Make sure human resources are coordinated with the food and beverage department, checking references and doing background checks,” Nelken adds. “A lot of the casinos require background checks. If you take it to the field, you will find out who you are hiring to work the land.” While there are many ways to fashion the glance of food security, Nelken poses these questions and answer, “How do rebuild confidence? What can we do to improve the system? You have to perform due diligence and check it out.”