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Wheat field

National security must extend to protecting food and agriculture

By Anthony Bergin

Last year the government designated several areas as crucial to Australian national security in its critical infrastructure legislation. The designated sectors included water, electricity, port and gas assets.

But our food and agriculture sector didn’t rate a mention. The ongoing reports of strawberry contamination highlight how the safety, security and operation of our food system can be deliberately challenged. Nine confirmed cases have been identified, with six brands of strawberries affected. Coles and Aldi have pulled all Queensland-grown strawberries from shelves across Australia. There are fears of copycat behaviour.

Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk has offered a $100,000 reward for information leading to an arrest. There are other unconfirmed reports of contamination. Across the Tasman one of New Zealand’s two major food distributors is taking the fruit off its shelves as a precaution.

We don’t know the motive for these criminal acts. But given the size and critical role our food systems play, it shows how Australia’s food and agriculture sys¬tems could be attractive terrorist targets. Terrorists may target a food product because of the potential impact on the economy, generating fear and undermining trust in the government.

Thankfully we’ve not had a terrorist attack on our food and agriculture systems.

But there’s no question that risk of intentional contamination of our food will challenge the food industry and regulators. University of Sydney food scientist Kim Phan-Thien says our industry isn’t really prepared for this kind of intentional contamination. She correctly observes: “The things we’re usually concerned about are the accidental contaminants; spray drift or microbial contamination”, which are common risks in the production system. But now we’re going to have also look “for the intentional adulteration for economic gain or a malicious reason or a form of terrorism”.

Food supply chains are complex, and sudden disruptions can cause significant economic and social disruptions.

Food companies are more reliant on information technology, and industrial control systems for food processing plants pose cyber security vulnerabilities. The bottom line is we’re vulnerable to an intentional contamination or interference with our food and agriculture systems.

So what should we do? Contamination of strawberries with sewing needles may well force a new approach from the food industry to protect its products from intentional interference.

The problem of food safety, including deliberate contamina¬tion of food, is one for the states, but federal Health Minister Greg Hunt wisely has asked Food Standards Australia New Zealand to appraise the situation immediately to see if there are supply chain weaknesses and systemic changes required.

FSANZ should examine how to develop links between food and agricultural production with our law enforcement and intelligence community. Scenarios around the intentional adulteration of food by a terrorist might be included as part of counter-terrorism training exercises.

Australia has made great strides in strengthening our investment in counter-terrorism. But national security planning requires we should be considering the risk landscape. That means planning for intentional food contamination; looking at who perpetrators might be, possible motives and the likely impact of attacks. The probability of a terrorist group or lone actor deliberately interfering with the food chain remains lower than the more recent terrorist incidents we’ve seen. Thankfully the strawberry contamination type incidents are rare. But they underline the point there can’t be national security without our food supply systems being safe.

Originally published by: The Australian on 19 Sep 2018