After a few spinach and green onion recalls, food safety of produce coming from outside the U.S. is top of mind and so is the cost of such recalls. Add in evidence that agricultural bioterrorism is a real threat, and you could have a fiscal disaster.

Five Morrison School of Management and Agribusiness faculty members recently received funding of more than $262,800 from the National Center for Food Protection and Defense (NCFPD) to study the potential monetary losses that may arise in the event of an agro-terrorism attack and/or contamination of imported produce coming through the border between Arizona and Nogales, Mexico, one of the busiest ports at the Southwest border.

During the winter season from October to May, this port of entry carries almost half of the fresh fruit and vegetables supplied to the United States, granting access to as many as 900 produce trucks per day. With a total farm value reaching $36 billion dollars in 2007, an intentional attack could cripple the U.S. fresh fruit and vegetable industry, not to mention the potential harm to consumers.

“Food safety is an issue that will persist for years to come, especially after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack,” said William Nganje, associate professor and principal investigator on the study. “U.S. troops found hundreds of pages of documentation devoted to agricultural terrorism in al Qaeda caves in Afghanistan. With my background and training in risk management and food safety investments, it was a logical fit for me to engage in this research.”

Nganje, Al Kagan, Jesus Bravo, Mark Edwards and Ram Acharya will collaborate with Mexican authorities and organizations such as the Nogales Port Authority, Fresh Produce Association of the Americas and CAADES, an organization of Mexican fruit and vegetable growers and processors.

“A customized food defense assessment survey will be used to collect pertinent data related to cost, risk and incentives pertaining to the produce sector, and CAADES and other Mexican associations will facilitate our implementation of this survey,” Nganje said. “Our team has two Spanish speakers, and with collaboration from CAADES, we do not anticipate any challenges during the data collection process.”

An intended outcome of the project is to provide better data with which the NCFPD can create food safety policies that help diminish incidents of contamination of food as it travels from grower to produce, importer and retailer.

“Results from the vulnerability assessment, risk based sampling methods and alternative risk mitigation strategies will aid efficient policy design for imported produce,” said Nganje. “Information from the study also will further employee development on risk management through training initiatives.”

Nganje and his team traveled to Nogales, Mexico, to begin pre-testing in December. Their study, titled “Vulnerability Assessment and Reduction of Economic Impact for the Fruit and Vegetable Industry: A Food Defense Assessment for Border Communities in the Southwest United States,” will continue to evaluate economic effects through May 2009.