If you’re worried that our food supply might be the next target of international terrorists, you probably needn’t be, says Barbara Rasco, associate professor of food science and human nutrition. Rasco’s research centers on bioterrorism and the safety of our food and water supply.
“I don’t think the events of September 11 mean there’s any increased risk to our food supply,” she says. Domestic ecoterrorists and bioterrorists are more likely to target our food supply than are foreign entities, she says. “The risk from them hasn’t changed.”
A lawyer as well as a food scientist, Rasco has worked on the prevention of international terrorist incidents. She and Gleyn Bledsoe, adjunct professor of biological systems engineering, have worked together for several years providing food safety training to the industry. Bledsoe’s experience also includes counterterrorism defense intelligence. The two now include food security and the prevention of intentional tampering in their training. All levels of the food industry have been geared up to look for tampering since the Tylenol incident in the early ’80s, when a consumer poisoned Tylenol already on the shelf. That incident led to the tamper-resistant packaging we’re so accustomed to now.
We’re fortunate in Washington State, says Rasco. Our food industry has been concerned about food security and safety even longer than that. That’s because much of what is grown or produced in Washington is exported, and we sell to countries that are picky about what they import. In addition, the food industry in out state sells specialty products like wine, cherries, raspberries, asparagus, and fish, and it carefully monitors not only production, but also the safe delivery to retailers.
There are good reasons for the food industry to be concerned about safe and secure food. The legal standards for injury from food are high. “If you’re a food producer, your neck is always sticking out,” she says. Food producers are strictly liable for any injury or sickness that can be traced to their food. Negligence or sloppiness or intent to injure are not required.
Preventing product tampering is obviously the key, says Rasco. She and Bledsoe stress its importance when they help companies develop security guidelines. They especially recommend that security be thought of as an extension of already existing programs designed to ensure food safety. They also point out that consumers play an important role. If a food looks odd or the package looks like it has been tampered with, or if there’s something that bothers you about a restaurant meal or a buffet item, let management know, says Rasco. They want to fix it more than you do.