The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has called on food retailers and distributors to do their part fighting the war on terror—not by mounting armed guards outside processing plants and grain silos, but by keeping good supply chain records. In December, the agency announced new rules requiring everyone in the food chain to keep detailed logs of where they received food from and where they shipped it to.
The FDA's new ruling may not make it harder for terrorists to infiltrate the food supply chain, but if contamination does take place, it should help investigators remove the tainted product quickly and trace where the breach occurred. The new rules require all parties in the food chain—anyone who manufactures, processes, packs, transports, distributes, receives, holds or imports food—to keep records showing the immediate previous source of all food received and the next recipient of all food released. They must be ready to make their records (which may be kept in either paper or electronic format) available within 24 hours if the FDA has reason to believe that an article of food presents a serious threat.
Since the 9/11 attacks, security experts have worried openly that the food supply chain represents an easy target for terrorists—a concern that's shared at the highest levels of government. When he announced his resignation, outgoing Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said, "For the life of me, I cannot understand why the terrorists have not attacked our food supply because it is so easy to do."
Off the hook
The new regulations met with a collective sigh of relief from members of the food industry. Previous drafts of the Bioterrorism Act had contained proposals that had set the industry on edge. One particularly contentious proposal would have required food distributors to store products according to lot numbers. That prompted an outcry from food distributors worried they'd be forced to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to retool their distribution centers and that they'd be unable to continue their customary practice of splitting cases and storing mixed items.
The new record-keeping rules, by contrast, are essentially an extension of the safety precautions already in place to deal with normal product recalls, which happen several times a month, according to the Food Marketing Institute (FMI). "The FDA didn't want to disrupt effective systems that are already in place," says Deborah White, the FMI's associate general counsel. "The FDA recognized that … there is no reason to duplicate existing records. So if you can access all of the information required in less than 24 hours, you should be in pretty good shape to be compliant with the regulations."
Nonetheless, some question whether the new measure—however well intentioned—will in fact increase security, or just increase food companies' paperwork burden and expenses. "I applaud the desire to try and strengthen these regulations because I want to be sure our families are protected," says Scott McWilliams, CEO of third-party provider Ozburn-Hessey Logistics, which deals heavily with food storage. "My concern is have we taken enough specific measures to improve the security of our food distribution network nationwide, or have we just increased the amount of paperwork?"
McWilliams says that without a technology upgrade, his company would likely have difficulty producing the required paperwork within 24 hours. "When you take a network like ours, operating close to 100 facilities with products going through multiple facilities, it will obviously require some additional technology."
At least McWilliams has time on his side. Food retailers, manufacturers and distributors have one year to bring their operations into compliance with the ruling. The FDA will hold a series of informational meetings in January and February to provide more details about the regulations.