Nation’s food supply vulnerable

Because America is truly a land of bounty, food is taken for granted. And any hint that what we eat could be the next target of terrorists is bound to give people goose bumps.

Tommy Thompson, the outgoing secretary of Health and Human Services, obviously knows that, especially as the former governor of an important agricultural state such as Wisconsin. But that didn’t stop him from loudly sounding the alarm about the nation’s vulnerable food supply when he announced his resignation last week.

Thompson took some legitimate grief for his comments. The next day, President Bush attempted to downplay the warning and reassure Americans. Bush’s reaction was understandable. Thompson’s words were characteristically blunt. Too blunt.

“I, for the life of me, cannot understand why the terrorists have not attacked our food supply, because it is so easy to do,” Thompson said, adding that he worries “every single night” about this very thing.

Thompson could have chosen his words more carefully so he could have sounded the needed warning without simultaneously running the risk of needlessly prompting people to lay awake at night worrying whether their eggs, toast and juice at breakfast were going to make them ill.

But give Thompson this: He did get the nation’s attention, and, by doing so, he has properly ramped up public pressure on Congress and the president to do more.

If Thompson is so worried, why hasn’t he done more to protect our food? He has, although even Thompson agrees it hasn’t been enough.

Before Thompson became secretary, less than $1 million was spent annually on Food and Drug Administration inspections of food coming into this country, according to Tony Jewell, Thompson’s spokesman. That figure is now $150 million.

“The FDA was doing 12,000 inspections four years ago,” Jewell said. “Now it’s doing about 100,000 annually. And he’s saying we need to do a lot more.”

Underscoring that point, the FDA on Monday announced new rules aimed at making it easier to investigate a terrorist attack on the U.S. food supply. Although the rules won’t change the underlying vulnerability problem, they will help the government figure out where the supply of food may have been tainted. The rules will require food manufacturers and other businesses to keep records showing where they received food and where they shipped it.

And, as Jewell pointed out, Thompson was warning about bioterrorism, including possible attacks on the nation’s food supply, months before 9-11. In fact, in July 2001, Thompson named an official in his department to coordinate counterbioterrorist activities.

But the job of securing the U.S. food supply needs to be dramatically stepped up under Thompson’s successor. Thompson specifically warned about the possibility of infected food from the Middle East but experts say the threat is equally serious for food produced domestically.

The many incidents in recent years of domestically produced food contaminated accidentally with E. coli bacteria surely underscore that point.