U.K. warns of biothreat to food

The U.K. Center for the Protection of National Infrastructure, which operates at the direction of the Security Service, recently warned manufacturers and retailers that there is a threat from radical groups that may seek to poison food supplies.

The warning comes as experts are evaluating the impact of a deadly E. coli outbreak in Germany, which has demonstrated the vulnerability of the food chain and how quickly highly virulent bacteria can spread. The outbreak has already left more than 1,800 seriously ill and claimed 18 lives, according to Telegraph.co.uk.

The CPNI has asked that food and drink producers and supermarkets adopt increased security measures at plants and depots and assist in identifying vulnerabilities in supply chains.

In the past, the threat of intentional contamination to the food supply has come from unstable individuals nursing a grudge or from criminal elements attempting extortion. Security officials now believe politically oriented groups like al-Qaeda, dissident republicans in Northern Ireland and animal rights activists might seek to poison large numbers of people.

“The UK suffers from a low level of malicious contamination of food by the bad, the mad and the sad. Now it has to consider the possibility of food supplies being disrupted by politically motivated groups,” a CPNI official said while addressing the Society for General Microbiology, Telegraph.co.uk reports.

Although the E. coli outbreak in Germany is thought to have been caused by poor hygiene somewhere in the supply chain, at least one senior health official has called for an investigation into the possibility that it might have been caused deliberately.

“The outbreak in Germany very much highlights how we produce food and how it is distributed is quite vulnerable in terms of agroterrorism," Dr. Richard Byrne from the Center for Rural Security at Harper Adams University College in Shropshire said, according to Telegraph.co.uk. “The impact on the German economy and fresh vegetable industry in general is huge. The US and Australia are much more publicly aware of the threat from terrorism to the food supply compared to the UK. Groups could go after consumer health in a short- term way by using something like E. coli, or longer term by contaminating with cadmium or radioactive cesium."

A CPNI report sent to companies in the food industry warns that the threat is unlikely to decline in the near future and that an attack on the food supply could cause mass casualties, economic disruption and widespread panic.

The report points to farms as particularly vulnerable because they often employ foreign workers. All businesses have been urged to make comprehensive background checks on new employees and visiting contractors. Production facilities should develop security and perimeter controls and unscheduled deliveries should not be accepted, according to the CPNI.