Discussions about protecting the food supply against terrorism have recently taken a back seat to those about safeguarding against pathogens, pandemics and natural disasters.
But a new research project is likely to shift some attention back to food security.
The Food Industry Center at the University of Minnesota has been polling food retail and food-service companies and their wholesale suppliers about readiness for a terrorist attack. Some observers feel such an attack is unlikely, but it was worrisome enough to lead the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to fund this research.
The results are preliminary because the survey is still in the field, but Jean Kinsey, the center's co-director, outlined for me some early findings following a recent industry presentation.
Respondents were asked to create a picture of the security practices and cultures of their organizations, everything from the commitment of top executives to communications with suppliers.
It turns out the biggest problems lie not within individual organizations, but rather with communications across the supply chain. Companies scored lowest in the attribute called “relationship management,” which involves sharing information among trading partners. One distributor summed up the issue this way, according to Kinsey: “I know what I'm doing, but I don't know if a manufacturer would be able to maintain my supplies during a crisis.”
That's a real problem, because the supply chain is based on interdependencies.
Another area of weakness, according to the data, is how well firms are tracking and auditing activities and problems, everything from employee theft to unlocked trucks. That finding is another cause for serious concern about readiness.
Overall, the food-service business did better than retail in preparedness. Food-service respondents consistently reported a higher level of involvement in security practices than their retail brethren. Kinsey said this reflects the fact that large restaurant organizations live and die by their brands' reputations and have more control over their suppliers. But that doesn't mean the retail side should be happy with runner-up status, especially since many retailers are increasingly embracing private-label programs featuring their own brand names.
Kinsey offered some sensible recommendations. The security tone should be set at the top of retail organizations. More retailers should hire vice presidents for security or defense. That role should be integrated into the organization's quality control efforts.
One promising development is a diagnostic tool being created by the university that also benefits from research at two other academic institutions. The tool will enable companies to benchmark their readiness against best performers.
Additional support is coming from other quarters. For example, Food Marketing Institute plans to add a security module to its SQF certification program so retailers can ensure their suppliers are trained and audited for food defense, said Tim Hammonds, FMI's president and CEO.
Meanwhile, those interested in becoming respondents for the Minnesota study still have a little time. They need to contact Kinsey at email@example.com.