The biggest danger to food safety and security is believing there is no danger, said Dr. Elsa Murano, undersecretary for food safety with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“My fear is that we will become complacent and think there is no danger, and that's when we will be the most vulnerable,” she said Murano brought her message of food safety and security to the International Conference of Agriculture Science and Technology, which was held recently in Houston.

Murano joined USDA-Food Safety Inspection Service, in October 2001 — immediately after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Needless to say, she said, “my job expectations changed dramatically.”

FSIS employs 7,600 inspectors across the county. It utilizes laboratory support and science-based policies to keep the food supply as safe as possible, Murano said, and to protect from threats, whether “unintentional or intentional,” to that food supply.

To that end, FSIS programs and policies are continually being updated, Murano said. It also works closely with other agencies, such as the White House Homeland Security Council and the Department of Homeland Security.

Minimize threat

The goal is to “minimize the threat to food security,” she said. Two projects are being implemented to reach that goal.

The first is to assess vulnerability of the food supply to threats, whether intentional or unintentional. This involves laboratory updates and security upgrades, among other measures.

The second is the organization of the Food Emergency Response Network, which involves integrating the nation's laboratory infrastructure at the local, state and federal levels.

FSIS also is working to prevent emergencies before they start by developing biosecurity training programs, which focus on “prevention of terrorist attacks, rather than responding to events,” she said.

The agency assesses vulnerabilities in the domestic food supply by determining the most susceptible products, the most likely agents and potential sites for deliberate contamination.

In addition, a vulnerability assessment is currently being conducted for imported products, she said.

The agency also offers a monitoring system to help keep track of consumer complaints and “determine if there is a trend in foodborne illness,” Murano said In addition, FSIS works with industry to make sure the established safety measures are in place, she said. “Working with industry is one of our biggest challenges” because the agency must rely on each industry and individual involved to see that the established guidelines are implemented.

And that's why food security is such a vital issue, not just for government agencies, but for individuals, families, communities and countries too. As one conference attendee put it: “Food safety is a global issue. A problem with the food supply of any one country relates to the situation in other countries.

“We must learn to think from our borders outward.”