ATHENS, Ga. -- Supermarket managers will be able to participate in a training program that will teach them how to respond to emergencies involving contamination of the food supply.
The training, to be carried out by the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences Cooperative Extension Service, begins in July. It will be open to Georgia food retailers and food processors, among others. Retailers should check with their local University of Georgia county cooperative extension for training dates and locations.
"[The program aims to teach] why agriculture and food are important economically, what emergency situations look like, how to respond when an emergency arises, and what resources are available," said Don Hamilton, a member of the Georgia Agroterrorism Committee and the Homeland Security coordinator for the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.
"The training, as it relates to food, will be a very high-level overview and won't get into specific foods," he said. "We will have examples to show what a problem looks like, whether it is a disease or a pathogen of some sort. We would discuss how the emergency agencies would cooperate, and then what agencies would be notified and how they would react."
The Department of Homeland Security funds the $858,000 program that covers training and curriculum materials for 3,500 participants. Georgia is the first state with an agroterrorism commission and that board is the first to conduct such training. Two years ago, Georgia participated in an assessment of terrorist vulnerabilities. That allowed the state to apply for Department of Homeland Security funds.
"One of the very first things we thought was important was to get awareness-level training," said Hamilton. "If you can just stop an incident in its starting stages, as close to start as possible, then you can save untold millions and billions of dollars and a lot of heartache."
Particular concerns include sabotage during food production, processing, inspection and transport. The curriculum points to recent food contamination events, including the 2001 foot-and-mouth disease epidemic in England; the 1984 salad bar contamination case by the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh religious cult in The Dalles, Oregon; and a January 2003 ground beef contamination by a disgruntled employee in Byron Center, Mich. Also covered are Al-Qaida interest points, including a U.S. military meals production facility in McAllen, Texas, and an inquiry into the purchase of a crop duster by Sept. 11 hijacker Mohammed Atta.
Georgia Commissioner of Agriculture Tommy Irvin told SN that concern about food contamination is what led Georgia to "take the national leadership in food safety and to bring it to the attention to those at Homeland Security to make sure our food supply is at the top of the list of things we should be concerned about."
Irvin visited England during the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak. The experience confirmed for him a need to develop strategies to deal with catastrophic events. "We knew that if we ever had that kind of interruption here, we would need to know how to respond immediately, rather than let it linger," he said.