SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- The food industry needs to be vigilant in reducing its exposure to product tampering as the nation becomes more aware of the potential dangers of terrorism, according to the official charged with leading the Food and Drug Administration's law enforcement activities.
Terrell Vermillion, director of the FDA's Office of Criminal Investigations, last week told an industry audience here that companies should bring their protection measures in line with OCI's recommended best practices.
"The product-tampering issue is even more serious since Sept. 11," he told attendees at the Food Marketing Institute's Midwinter Executive Conference. "The threat of terrorism has provided a new twist."
Vermillion delivered an address called "Terrorism and the Food Industry."
OCI was established in 1991 with a "unique law enforcement mission within FDA," Vermillion said. Headquartered in Rockville, Md., OCI includes six field offices and five resident offices throughout the country and employs 145 special agents in the United States and Puerto Rico. Product tampering is a priority for OCI and first became a federal crime in 1983.
Vermillion said there are varying reasons why people tamper with products, including getting revenge, achieving "15 minutes of fame," covering up crimes and pursuing copycat actions.
The good news is that "to date, there's been no attempt to kill masses by introduction of agents into food," he said. But tampering, "which can damage brands and produce fear and anxiety in consumers," is now being monitored as a possible terrorist tool.
"The true terrorist wants to kill and injure large numbers of people and doesn't care about his or her own safety," he said.
Terrorists' motives include disrupting transportation and distribution, lowering production, causing employee absenteeism and promoting a loss of confidence in the government's ability to guarantee safety, he said. "Hoax threats can be very destructive."
Vermillion, who was a special agent with the U.S. Secret Service for 23 years, stressed that OCI has a good working relationship with the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
He provided a multipoint checklist for companies to follow in the effort to safeguard against tampering. Those steps include:
Conduct a top-to-bottom review or assessment of the company's readiness.
Demonstrate top management's commitment to security is a major priority.
Hire a professional security manager and "empower that person to accomplish your goals and be responsive" to you.
Integrate company efforts with state-of-the-art security technology, including anticounterfeiting technology.
Limit access to work areas to essential employees only.
Conduct good employee background screenings.
Train employees in security measures. "Tell them why you need security and why procedures are important. Reward them when they have suggestions."