Protection of food from acts of intentional adulteration (IA) intended to cause wide-scale public health harm, including acts of terrorism, is an important function of all food manufacturers and retailers.
The act of preparing for and preventing this type of IA risk is commonly referred to as food defense.
IA threats to humans can be from a variety of agents—chemical, bacteriological, radiological and physical.
IA threats can be found at any node in the supply chain including transportation, manufacturing and at retail, foodservice and sales establishments.
While government and academia perform research and develop tools to aid in IA risk reduction, industry must enact effective food defense mitigation strategies in their facilities.
Likewise, food defense tools and resources that the government and academia create can only be effective if they are accessible and used properly by the industry.
While it is possible that there may be points, steps or procedures in food manufacturing environments that may have vulnerabilities, just as in our personal lives, the mere presence of a “vulnerability” is not an indication that our food—or we—are at risk, unless there is an identifiable hazard (threat).
Vulnerability is the state of being subject to an act of IA and is not the equivalent of risk of an IA event. Hazards (threats) must accompany vulnerability for risk to be present, and these hazards must be the focus of prevention.
Thus, risk assessments are the rational choice for determining where within a food manufacturing facility or retail establishment food defense mitigation strategies are most likely to protect food and, ultimately, the consumer.
Retail, food service and sales facilities may have additional risk of an IA event due to the absence of important food safety management systems including a lack of training for the front line food worker, an effective recall system to remove foods from multiple service/sales establishments after an IA event or an effective traceability program to determine where the food ingredients/products were produced, and which establishments received them (also impacting the investigation of the IA source).
A risk-based assessment approach for food defense in a manufacturing or a retail, foodservice or sales facility should be based on the ingredients received, the foods produced, the physical layout of the facility, processes used, evaluation of the inherent presence of employees and contractors who work there (e.g., contracted staff/seasonal personnel, pest control, cleaning/sanitation crews) and the effectiveness of existing access control measures and managerial controls.
All of these elements should be identified as potential areas for food protection strategies that would need to be included within the food defense plan of a food manufacturing or retail facility.
It can be challenging for industry to gauge the effectiveness of food defense mitigation strategies that may have been implemented because IA events are rare.
Therefore, the continuous assessment of new potentially vulnerable process steps, and subsequent verification of all mitigation strategies to minimize or prevent IA hazards should also be performed.