U hosts food bioterrorism videoconference

Joanna Dornfeld

As President George W. Bush encouraged the nation to not panic but remain vigilant Nov. 8, University and state officials discussed ways to prevent bioterrorism in the food industry.

The University Center for Animal Health and Food Safety sponsored “Just-In-Time Training” and broadcast the first and second of three interactive videoconferences throughout the state Thursday and Friday.

“The probability of (bioterrorism) happening from an international group is less likely than that happening from a disgruntled domestic group,” said Bill Schafer, food technology associate professor and extension educator. “It’s really hard to attach odds or risk.”

In the United States there are approximately 1,000 food contamination incidents per year infecting more than 10 people, said Will Hueston, Center for Animal Health and Safety director.

To protect themselves, consumers should know their food sources, maintain cleanliness at home when preparing food and thoroughly cook food, he said.

Detecting food contamination is difficult, and the discussion at the videoconference focused on ways to prevent contamination and what steps to take if contamination occurs.

There are many places between the farm and consumers’ tables where food might be contaminated, so it is important to take action to prevent contamination throughout the process, Hueston said.

“Food-born disease outbreaks will continue to occur by accident or intention, but we must be prepared,” he said Thursday to food inspectors and industry employees.

Health inspectors are able to determine whether food contamination was intentional or accidental, sometimes in a matter of days.

“Once you pull all the information together, a pretty clear picture comes across,” said Colleen Paulus, environmental public health manager for the Minnesota Department of Health.

The videoconference focused on ways food processing plants, restaurants and other food handlers can prepare for and prevent a bioterrorist attack or other food-safety breaches.

“You’re creating a system in which the unusual stands out,” Paulus said to the group.

Most food processing plants and restaurants have a Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points plan in place. HACCP is a series of checks food industry members make to prevent potential contamination.

The assembled officials stressed using common sense such as making all employees wear name badges, having visitors check in at businesses and washing hands thoroughly to prevent the possibility of attack.

They also suggested creating an action plan to effectively combat a bioterrorist attack or other food contamination.

“Everything is not going to be a terrorist threat, but you have to check it out anyway,” Shirley Bohm, Dairy and Food Inspection Division manager for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, said to the crowd.

Citizens can assist the food industry by reporting suspicious behavior at grocery stores or restaurants.

The bioterrorism and food safety videoconferences were held Nov. 8 and 9, and there will be a third videoconference Friday.

“Our goal is an attempt to give to you information you can use in your jobs and lives,” Hueston said to the group.

Joanna Dornfeld welcomes comments at [email protected]