Send in the offense for food defense

By George Miller

Military software has been retrained for deployment in protecting the United States’ food supply against terrorist attack, helping those in the food business how to think like terrorists might. According to Jon Woody, policy analyst with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA’s) Office of Food Defense, Communication, and Response, a software program with the unwieldy moniker of CARVER + Shock provides the food industry with an offensive targeting-prioritization tool. Woody described the program in a presentation hosted by Ross Enterprise of CDC Software in Atlanta that was webcast on March 12, exactly 19 years after the Chilean grape scare of 1989.

On that day, the U.S. embassy in Santiago received two phone calls warning that fruit shipped to the U.S. and elsewhere had been poisoned. Cyanide was identified in two grapes seized at the port of Philadelphia after lab testing, but investigators found no cyanide in proximate grapes tested at another lab. FDA officials temporarily banned all fruit shipments from Chile and urged that such fruit be removed from grocers’ shelves.

Some 2 million crates of grapes were impounded by the FDA. Without the income from those grapes, and from fruit shipped elsewhere in the world that was banned by other governments, tens of thousands of Chileans lost their jobs.

Later, some believed the cyanide-positive findings were the result of a botched test, leading to an overreaction by the FDA. Others believed the entire incident was a hoax, while still others saw it as a miraculously avoided tragedy.

Acceptable level of risk

A raft of editorial and op-ed pieces came down to a basic question: What is a tolerable level of risk in our food supply? Zero risk is unachievable, experts say, and promoting zero risk creates a false sense of assurance and reduces overall food protection.

By conducting a CARVER + Shock assessment, says Woody, the user can determine facility vulnerabilities and then focus resources on protecting those areas. The software helps the user think like an attacker in order to identify the most attractive targets for an attack.

The acronym “CARVER” stands for the six attributes used to evaluate targets for attack: criticality, accessibility, recuperability, vulnerability, effect, and recognizability. “Shock” refers to the psychological impact of an attack, which increases with the number of deaths involved or the historical significance of the target.

Food, from all its varied sources, is big business, representing $1.24 trillion per year–13 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product, according to Woody and government sources. Some 2.2 million U.S. farms feed more than 57,000 food processors, 6,500 of which process meat, poultry, and egg products. These products represent not just what we eat, but also $60 billion of U.S exports.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports more than 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations, and 5,000 deaths annually from unintentional food-borne disease contamination alone.

Collaborative effort

CARVER + Shock, announced in mid-2007, was developed by the FDA Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition in collaboration with Sandia National Laboratories, the Institute of Food Technologists, U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service, National Center for Food Protection and Defense, and state and industry representatives.

Sandia National Labs researcher Susan Carson tests CARVER + Shock, a computerized program that helps protect America’s food supply against terrorist attacks. Sandia worked with the FDA to prepare the program for distribution throughout the food industry. Photo by Randy Montoya/courtesy of Sandia National Labs.
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CARVER + Shock is the latest in a series of food defense efforts by FDA following the terrorist attacks of September 2001. Since then, FDA has worked with federal, state, and local governments, and with the food industry to assess and improve food defense measures.

One such effort, the Strategic Partnership Program Agroterrorism Initiative, helps identify sector-specific vulnerabilities, determine research gaps, and increase coordination between the federal government and industry stakeholders.

In 2006, FDA launched the ALERT Initiative to raise industry awareness of food defense and preparedness issues. The ALERT acronym reminds industries and businesses of the five key program elements: assure, look, employees, reports, and threat. The elements collectively help food handlers decrease the risk of intentional contamination at their facilities. CARVER + Shock builds on ALERT.


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