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Securing Europe’s food chain points to a huge range of problems

By BROOKS TIGNER

BRUSSELS – Europe’s security threats falling into the category of “low-risk but high-impact” may be of low probability but they are the ones that make policymakers and first responders the most nervous.

These include threats to Europe’s food chains where regulation and good practices by industry have focused overwhelmingly on food safety versus food security. Even where food operators are aware of the security risks, they don’t like to talk about them.

However, as the conclusions of one of the EU’s largest research projects have amply demonstrated, far more alarming is that apparently many food operators are simple unable or unequipped to detect the kind of threats associated with deliberate contamination of their products. Moreover, they are not ready to deal with the consequent product recall procedures, legal aspects, crisis communication methods or other issues.

Identifying the technological, procedural and policy gaps to close the security loop in food and other sectors was the focus of the EDEN (“End-user driven DEmonfor cbrNe”) project. With a massive budget of EUR 36 million, to which the EU contributed 68 percent, the three-year project concluded its work in September 2016, having held its final conference here on 11-12 October.

EDEN’s work was organised around demos in three subject areas: food security, multi-chemical threats and radiological ones. While much EU money has flowed into research to counter chemical and radiological threats, food security is still a concept-in-the-making. It lacks Europe-wide methodologies, exchanges of lessons learnt and common terminology. For example, a European Commission-sponsored glossary of technical CBRNe terms now includes 774 entries in more than 20 languages. By contrast, nothing of the sort exists for Europe’s food sector regarding security.

EDEN’s on-site demos at selected food processing plants in Europe opened more than a few eyes to the problem, as EDEN researcher Marco Gerevini, project manager at Italy’s food research organisation of Technoalimenti S.C.p.A., told SECURITY EUROPE during the final conference event. Technoalimenti is public-private association of research entities, with 20 percent of its shares held by Italy’s Ministry of Research.

“They were not able to detect any of product samples we contaminated. Not one,” said Gerevini. That hit home.”

Gerevini and his EDEN colleagues selected two food sites in Europe: a well-known Italian meat-processing company whose products are distributed internationally, and one of Spain’s leading sugar-packaging producers.

Food samples were taken from each, shipped back to Germany and Norway for contamination and then returned to the sites for comparative analysis by EDEN’s mobile laboratories there and by the two sites based on their own standard safety analysis techniques.

Prior to the testing, the EDEN team first carried out a vulnerability assessment of each site to find the weakest points across their food processes, along with a gap analysis in 17 areas such as: access control and awareness of food defence, detection equipment and technologies, track-and-tracing capabilities, and the arrangements for communication between the food industry and health authorities.

They selected two vulnerability points at the Italian site – one before cooking and one during the packaging process. A heat-resistant biological agent capable of surviving the 60-degree heat treatment required by EU food safety regulations was injected into the meat sample before cooking. This was followed by a heat-vulnerable agent to contaminate the meat after heat treatment.

EDEN did the same at the Spanish sugar factory, selecting a pesticide-like agent as the contaminant. “The vulnerability point was not in the sugar silos – that would require far much of the agent – but further down the process where small volumes are processed,” said Gerevini.

Once the contaminated samples were shipped back to the two factories, each was asked each to perform their standard safety analysis on them. For instance, the Italian factory received 21 samples corresponding to selected points along its processing chain and contaminated with various agents.

“Neither factory was able to detect the agents or any signs of contamination.  They found no anomalies. For them, the samples were ‘normal’ and thus ready for market,” observed Gerevini.

As fellow EDEN researcher Rebecca Davidson of FFI, Norway’s defence research institute, told the conference: “This is an issue of resilience. One of the contaminants was an air-borne virus. And it wasn’t detected because the factory doesn’t expect to find that, so they don’t test for it. They need targeted tools to scan their food for any anomalies.”

     THE UPSHOT: For Gerevini and colleagues, their overall conclusion to EDEN’s food security research is simple, though not straightforward: the creation of a “food defence” community in Europe. This would encompass all stakeholders in the sector, from the food-processors themselves to law enforcement authorities, the scientific community and policymakers in order to identify the sector’s vulnerabilities and define prevention and mitigation strategies.
     The aims of such a community would have to go far beyond mere preventative measures to include wider criminal and legal aspects to “food terrorism” in Europe, crisis response and management techniques, product recall procedures and decontamination techniques within food processing sites themselves.
     That is a very big call, though not impossible.
     The US government, for example, has been marching in this direction since 9/11 with a food defence plan for the sector. All US agro-food players have until May 2019 to carry out a vulnerability assessment and put in place a mitigation strategy as well as monitor-and-maintenance procedures to ensure their facilities are constantly protected against deliberate adulteration. Small companies have an extra year to comply.
     Given that many European food producers export their products to the United States, this will directly affect any production or distribution facilities they may have there. However, a European equivalent to the US approach is sorely needed, and not only for reasons of security, though that is primary.
     Food standards are always a bone of contention in trade agreements. If Europe fails to develop its own food defence norms, the risk is that the US will impose its standards from across the Atlantic.

About Brooks Tigner

Brooks Tigner is editor & chief policy analyst at SECURITY EUROPE. He can be reached at: bt@securityeurope.info

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