The new food defense regulations have caused quite a stir in the food industry and have left many scratching their heads. Many companies are worried about how to implement these programs. The regulations have created a format and structure in which many companies can adapt within their existing food defense programs to comply with the new law. Still, one of the biggest challenges of food defense is merely the idea of developing the food defense plan and coming into compliance with the FDA’s new Food Defense rule. The FDA received many comments from industry in response to the draft guidance. Many of these comments asked the agency for additional time to come into compliance, and the FDA responded by delaying the compliance dates well beyond what was proposed in the draft rules.
According to the regulations, companies are required to implement a food defense plan that focuses on the vulnerabilities in their facility. If you follow the FDA’s template, a food defense plan will look very similar to the traditional HACCP plan. The term, VACCP, Vulnerability Analysis Critical Control Points, is a term that is being tossed around as of late. The FDA wants companies to make sure that they consider an internal attacker, one that has inside access to the buildings, processes and products that are being produced. For many companies, this is stretching them beyond their current paradigms and may force some to implement new procedures. In reality, this paradigm shift is not insurmountable when the items to be controlled are within the four walls of their facility. Even subcontractors, such as pest control providers, maintenance subcontractors, auditors, etc., can be included in these programs. However, is this enough to ensure the safety of the product you are selling, the one you are putting your name on, and the one you are personally standing behind?
The goal of current risk-based thinking is to find the weakest link in the process, evaluate the risk and likelihood of a threat to food safety, and respond appropriately to control the risk. Unlike the Preventive Controls rule and the FSVP rule, the Food Defense rule focuses on the processes occurring in a facility and does not take into account the processes involved in the supply chain. CargoNet Command Center found that there were 1500 security breaches in the transportation industry in the United States and Canada in 2015. The data was categorized by types of product and the highest percentage of any group of products was the food and beverage products which comprised 28% of the cargo thefts. On average, that is greater than one food or beverage cargo theft per day. CargoNet Command Center provides a nice map on their website showing the location of these instances and I encourage you to review this map. If your product passes along the hot spots of cargo theft, as well as having risk factors such as being valuable or in limited supply, it would be very beneficial to build systems and programs in place to address these additional risks to your product.
In another study presented at the Food Defense conference, there was a statistically significant link between breaches in IT systems to a follow-up cargo theft. Many quality and food safety professionals, much less executives, fully understand the interdependence of all business units on food safety. Many companies have problems with siloed departments, and unfortunately, this increases the vulnerabilities to attacks on the food we are trying to protect. This is a great example of how food safety is everyone’s job, and having this mentality is key to the success of food safety programs.
Of course, the requirement to the Food Defense rule must be addressed, but I challenge the industry to look beyond the walls of our facilities and instead, take a whole business approach and apply the principals of food defense to all inputs of the process that impacts the finished product. As food safety professionals, we need to work with our suppliers and our customers to ensure that the whole supply chain is protected from an attack.