Can Tech Protect Food from Terror Attacks?

American consumers may always have harbored a low-level worry that the produce they buy will be less than fresh, or the raw meat tainted with some naturally occurring bacteria. But now, in a world that suggests threats from terrorists almost anywhere, the food industry appears particularly vulnerable.

Yet, only now are the systems being put in place to track what happens to food products as they make their way to store shelves.

Packaged-goods companies “don’t have the processes today that ensure trackability—other than those in pharmaceuticals, and that is only because of FDA (Food and Drug Administration) requirements,” says Roddy Martin, service director for life sciences with AMR Research in Boston.

In the not-so-distant future, though, a smart, microchip-bearing label could provide the location of the farm where your food originated, the date it was processed, the route it took to reach your corner supermarket, and how long—down to the minute—it has been sitting on the shelf. Traceability is moving quickly from a nicety to a requirement, and one that the government and food companies are counting on to shore up “end-to-end” food safety.

It won’t be easy. Companies selling prewrapped consumer goods tend to operate many separate information systems. Quality-management systems don’t talk to supply-management systems. Manufacturing systems don’t talk to materials management systems. Each system tends to have its own technology chieftain. There is no executive-level “chief product officer” overseeing the entire chain, Martin notes.

While monitoring every possible step from field to table seems daunting, corporations and food-industry associations are already applying information technologies to the problem. There are projects ranging from the lofty creation of new business-to-business, technology-based food-industry coalitions, to the seemingly mundane, like developing smarter labels for pre-packaged spinach.

Pressure to increase food security is coming from all sides. President Bush’s fiscal 2003 federal budget earmarked $146 million in new spending to protect the U.S. food system from attack, with allocations for upgrading the federal Department of Agriculture (USDA) facilities and operational security, more research on security techniques and technologies, and better monitoring and inspection programs.

Federal and quasi-federal oversight agencies are cropping up. In mid-February, for example, the Food Marketing Institute (FMI), a supermarket industry umbrella organization, and the National Infrastructure Protection Center (NIPC), established to serve as a government focal point in assessing threats to the country’s infrastructure, banded together to create the Food Industry Information Sharing and Analysis Center (ISAC). This new ISAC will provide a unified site for the food industry to report, monitor, and ultimately reduce its vulnerability to threats or attacks.

“The thought is that the U.S. government will mandate more tracking and tracing of data, so as to stave off—or possibly prepare for—an attack on the food supply,” says Jim Wilson, e-commerce consultant with Bayer Corp.’s U.S. agriculture division, and executive director of the Kansas City, Mo.-based AgXML grain and oilseed e-commerce consortium. “But it’s one thing to track and trace a boxcar of food. It’s something else to try to track a can full of corn—or a single grain of corn.”

The food supply chain is comprised of inputs and outputs, explains Wilson. In order to secure the food supply fully, both must be monitored. That includes seed, crop protection products and fertilizer, as well as the resulting food products consumed by the population. In addition, interim manufacturing, processing, and distribution steps also need to be secure.