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Frank Busta (L) and Shaun Kennedy

University researchers Frank Busta (left) and Shaun Kennedy head up the U's food protection center.

Eat, drink, and be wary

U's National Center for Food Protection and Defense helps keep the nation's food supply safe

By Steven Johnson

September 25, 2007

Everyone eats. So we're all at risk when tainted foods reach our plates--by accident or by design, at home or on the town.

The next time you hit the fast-food drive-through, consider this: A double cheeseburger "with the works" contains more than 80 ingredients, sourced and processed worldwide. When you're imagining potential food contamination, that's one unappetizing number.

The U.S. food and agriculture industry alone is a $1.2 trillion business that employs one in six Americans. How do you defend such an immense target--from deadly contaminants and even deadlier contaminators? Put the University of Minnesota on the job.

"The food industry is very open, and it's impossible to turn it into an armed fort," says Frank Busta, director of the University's National Center for Food Protection and Defense (NCFPD). "But we're using research and education to defend the safety of the food system."

Launched in 2004 as a Department of Homeland Security Center of Excellence, the NCFPD is a consortium of academics, industry leaders, and public officials who collaborate to close the gaps--in security, scientific knowledge, industry best practices and government procedures--that make food vulnerable to potential intentional contamination with biological or chemical agents. In recognition of the Center's contributions, the NCFPD leadership recently received the Commissioner's Special Citation from the Food and Drug Administration. This past June, the Department of Homeland Security renewed the NCFPD's grant with $9 million anticipated for a two-year term.

Shaun Kennedy, NCFPD deputy director, says the University is a natural home for the NCFPD's cross-disciplinary work because of its six-school Academic Health Center and history of innovation in food safety. The following programs all involve University researchers from different fields:

Early detection. The NCFPD is working with the private sector to develop cost-effective sensors that detect contaminants in the food supply chain. Microbiologist Vivek Kapur is among the lead researchers.

Consistent response. Because the public health system is largely run at the state and local level, disparities exist across jurisdictions-in how quickly officials investigate incidents and coordinate treatment, for example. To eliminate them, Craig Hedberg from the School of Public Health and others are consulting with officials nationwide to identify best practices and develop response protocols.

Coordinated communications. Will Hueston of the College of Veterinary Medicine and collaborators from many other universities are providing risk-communication training to the Food and Drug Administration and other federal agencies, and developing the capability to bring subject-matter experts together with risk communication specialists to support event response.

One of the exciting high-tech "weapons" used by the NCFPD is the Consequence Management System (CMS), led by BT Safety of Minnesota with input from many NCFPD investigators. This computer-based planning and advance-warning program can simulate the hour-by-hour impact of a food contamination spreading through the supply chain to consumers.

Symposium on healthy eating and healthy business practices

On Monday, October 1, the University of Minnesota will bring together experts from some of the world's largest food companies for "The Future and Practice of Healthy Eating" symposium. The event, which runs from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Holiday Inn Metrodome in Minneapolis, will include discussions on sustainable food production and distribution and the relationship between climate and sustainable food. To register or for the full agenda, visit the U's the Food Industry Center.

What would happen, for example, if botulism were introduced at a dairy plant? The CMS uses information from past food scares, plus distribution data from the private sector, to estimate how much product would get contaminated; where it would end up; what the economic cost would be; how many people would become sick; and, how many people would die, based on how fast the contamination could be controlled.

Kennedy says that the CMS is now influencing decisions at the top levels of government. The National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center is using the CMS to prepare the food system portions of its biennial bioterrorism risk assessments for the President. And Kennedy expects other government agencies and food companies to soon use CMS to test their crisis-readiness.

NCFPD studies led by Jean Kinsey of the department of applied economics show that food-defense issues are the number one priority for Americans in the fight against terrorism today-above even air-travel safety. The center continues to develop new tools and strategies for food defense to help the U.S. food supply remain one of the safest around. Says Kennedy, "It's the one critical infrastructure you can't opt out of."

Further reading Tom Ridge opens new Center for Food Protection and Defense Keeping our food safe"