CHICAGO – Nearly three years after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the restaurant and food industries and the U.S. government are still working to craft a coherent security plan to protect what we eat, from field to fork.

Industry professionals say that improvements have been made, from streamlined communications channels to the addition of armed guards.

But with an estimated 878,000 restaurants, 57,000 food processors and 34,000 supermarkets, the U.S. food chain is ill-suited for measures like the bomb-sniffing dogs at airports.

The challenge facing government and industry: Beef up security, but avoid a system so burdensome that it leaves fresh tuna aging in the Baja sun while border inspectors wrangle over paperwork.

Officials say they can make it harder for everyone from disgruntled employees to organized terror groups to use food as a weapon. But they also stress that given the far-flung nature of the food business, the system can never be made bulletproof.

“Nobody in this business thinks we’re going to be able to prevent 100 percent” of the potential attacks, said Steven Grover, vice president of health and safety regulatory affairs for the National Restaurant Association. He led a panel discussion on food defense at the Washington-based trade group’s recent conference in Chicago.

In June, the nation’s capital hosted a meeting on security with nearly 100 professionals from throughout the restaurant and food industries, as well as representatives from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the Department of Homeland Security and other federal agencies responsible for keeping food safe.

Technically, the effort is called bolstering “food security,” or taking steps to protect the food supply, at all stages, from intentional contamination. That’s different from improving “food safety,” which involves keeping foods free of naturally occurring germs and bacteria such as E. coli.

The government and industry-wide efforts in food security have largely involved attempts to improve coordination and communication, both within the industry and between industry and government.

“Hundreds of food products come in from hundreds of sources,” said Grover, of the restaurant association. “There are thousands of supply lines. I don’t believe there is any other system that’s as much of a spider web as food.”

In fact, this country imports a large portion of its food supply, including 83 percent of fish and shellfish and more than a third of fresh fruits, according to a report from the U.S. General Accounting Office.

Despite the overwhelming number of players in the food network, Brackett believes it’s possible to have a meaningful increase in food security.

“If every company does its part, that adds up to a lot of protection,” he said. “A lot of companies have taken some common-sense actions that have greatly enhanced food security. But we do have some ways to go yet.”

Experts want companies to start with “common sense” measures:

Thoroughly inspect all incoming food containers.

Inspect food storage areas daily and log any abnormalities.

Ask whether your supplier can deliver the food in tamper-resistant or tamper-evident packaging.

Thoroughly check the references of all new hires.

Train all employees to be alert to anything suspicious.

Post clear instructions, in all needed languages, for handling an emergency.

Chart the probability and potential severity of threats.

Perform a cost-benefit analysis to help address first the threats with the greatest probability and severity.

Implement risk controls.

Find out which government agency to call in an emergency.

SOURCES: National Restaurant Association; Grocery Manufacturers Association; Food Marketing Institute; the Uriah Group

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