Commentary: Our vulnerable food supply

Kansas City Star columnist Mary Sanchez
Kansas City Star columnist Mary Sanchez MCT

The heartland label "breadbasket of the world" brings to mind homey comforts, until you begin viewing agriculture as the FBI does.

If terrorism means planes into buildings and bombs planted in subways, consider the potential vulnerabilities of our food and water supplies. Both could be targets for contamination, triggering mass panic, catastrophic death tolls and economic turmoil.

This week the International Symposium on Agroterrorism will have experts assessing risk from farm to fork.

More than 750 people, representing every state and 25 countries, will attend the three-day symposium beginning Tuesday at the Hyatt Regency Crown Center hotel.

Kansas City’s FBI office began organizing the gatherings after President George W. Bush issued a directive on agriculture as a key national infrastructure.

But it soon became apparent that public and private sectors weren’t coordinated in regards to food safety, said Special Agent Craig Watz.

Networking — pulling best practices and applying them elsewhere — has been an outcome of the previous three symposiums. As Watz rightly contends, “The time to exchange business cards is not in the throes of the crisis.”

Consider all of the people involved in moving meat from the feedlot to the slaughterhouse to the manufacturing plant as food is prepped and packaged, then is distributed by truck or rail and finally enters a market or restaurant.

Each step offers the potential for contamination, either by mistake or intent. It’s similar for fruits and vegetables.

“The food that we consume is often taken for granted, and we can’t afford to let our guard down,” Watz said.

Congress recently passed the Food Safety Modernization Act, requiring far more oversight of the nation’s food.

All of this risk management is wisely undertaken as the Midwest’s stake in protecting the food supply continues to rise.

The ante began to rise in 2009 when Manhattan, Kan., was chosen as the new site for the nation’s biodefense research lab, replacing the one on the isolated Plum Island off the tip of Long Island.

The $650 million National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility was an economic and political prize. It puts the region in charge of studying and safekeeping pathogens capable of wiping out food supplies. Planned security for the lab has been described as a vault inside a vault inside a submarine.

Yet the Kansas Bioscience Authority, which was involved in gaining the federal site, is under criminal investigation by Johnson County prosecutors and faces continued pressure from Gov. Sam Brownback’s office, which is calling for greater transparency in the quasi-public entity’s spending.

To my mind-set, that sort of scrutiny also plays into solid, secure systems.

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