Food terrorism tops 2009 safety scare list

By Sarah Hills

- Last updated on GMT

Economic terrorism and deadly strains of E. coli are among the main food safety issues that manufacturers could face in the US in 2009, according to a law firm which represents victims of food-borne illness outbreaks.

For 2009, Bill Marler, food safety advocate and managing partner of law firm Marler Clark, asked the food safety community to weigh in on the most pressing food safety challenges.

Top of the list was globalization, including the possibility of "economic or chemical terrorism"​, which may not directly intend to scare people but is the intentional adulteration of the food supply motivated by profit, as in the case of the recent melamine scare in China .

A lack of regulation for certain E. coli strains was also highlighted.

Food safety scares have major cost implications for the industry, as well as risking consumer health.

And Marler said food safety will be a major concern for president-elect Barack Obama after his inauguration this month, as it is “a vital part of the overall health of our country and our economy”​.

He added: “The new Obama administration will be facing enormous challenges, and food safety is certainly one of them.”

The challenges in 2009

Marler Clark predicts that this year there will be more international recalls and outbreaks “due to expanding globalization of the food supply and the challenges of oversight/infrastructure in developing countries”​.

This includes bioterrorism, where harmful biological substances are intentionally used to create widespread illness and fear, as well as economic/chemical terrorism.

There has been a continued rise of the potentially fatal bug, E. coli O157:H7 contaminating meat and other products like leafy greens and raw dairy and the equally deadly non-O157 STEC (Shiga-toxin producing E. coli) strains are also expected to prove a challenge. However, the law firm said this is not listed yet as an adulterant in meat and not tested for, whereas O157:H7 is.

Also predicted are outbreaks linked to local food and/or farmer's markets and more contamination events involving the whole food chain, from animal feed to animals to humans.

Similarly, as grain prices and starvation in other parts of the world rise, people may hunt wild animals for food, exposing them to new diseases which may cross to humans.

Public funding for food safety research, surveillance, and education will be a problem as the work load continues to grow.

Food safety agencies will need to improve communication with consumers to keep up with outbreaks. And there is the issue of how consumers sort through the “cacophony”​ of information on food and labeling.

Another challenge will be balancing food protection and environmental health and, lastly more pet food recalls are expected as testing is increasing.

Protection and prevention

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently announced that the rules governing the safe manufacturing, processing, packing and holding of food in the US are to be updated in an effort to provide additional protection against food-borne illness.

In November, US lawyer Jeffrey Weinstein, warned manufacturers that insurance coverage offered under basic contaminated products policies was “limited to contamination of the insured's own product”.

However, even if manufacturers’ products are not contaminated, they may suffer by association and insurers are developing policies that could potentially cover these “falling-through-the-cracks situations”​.

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