U.S. at Risk for Foodborne Attack

Experts point to vulnerabilities in food imports and regulations.

Chinese meat processor Shuanghui International Holdings Ltd. agreed to buy Smithfield Foods Inc. for approximately $4.72 billion. Overseas meat producers are subject to strict U.S. inspections every year.

Chinese meat processor Shuanghui International Holdings Ltd. agreed to buy Smithfield Foods Inc. for approximately $4.72 billion. Overseas meat producers are subject to strict U.S. inspections every year.

By SHARE

The next major attack against the homeland may not come in the form of an ICBM, a chemical weapon or a crippling cyberstrike, but through the club sandwich you had for lunch.

Experts are concerned about vulnerabilities within the U.S. food infrastructure, including the very regulations that enforce food safety standards at home and in partner countries. These rules could relegate the U.S. to relying on others for this critical resource.

[READ: Lawmakers to 'Start From Scratch' After CISPA Bill Is Shelved]

"I've been concerned for a long time that we could wake up one day and be as dependent on foreign food supplies as we are on foreign oil today," said Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., at a breakfast meeting with reporters Tuesday.

Forbes brought up the two major issues for America's food supply: safety and security. The first refers to ensuring that food, whether homegrown or imported, is safe to eat. Milk from a dairy in the Midwest contaminated with salmonella, for instance, was responsible for 250,000 illnesses in 1985, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The government was unable to immediately trace a similar outbreak in the mid 1990s to a particular ice cream distributor.

Both of those incidents were deemed incidental, but it's possible for a nefarious actor to take advantage of that vulnerability.

"Here's the problem you have today: We don't know where the food is coming from," he said.

[READ: FDA Announces New Rules to Strengthen Food Safety]

The second issue with food supply – security – refers to whether Americans will have enough food to eat through shortages or contamination. Forbes said he is particularly concerned about vulnerability to foreign countries in this realm.

Last month, Chinese company Shuanghui International announced plans to buy Smithfield Foods, the largest U.S. pork distributor, which is based in his home district in Virginia.

Overseas meat producers are subject to strict U.S. inspections every year. But other industries are more difficult to check. For example, 80 percent of seafood in the U.S. comes from abroad.

The solution starts at home, analysts say.

"It's something people should be educated about," says Danelle Bickett-Weddle, the associate director at Iowa State University's Center for Food Security and Public Health.

"We're susceptible, no doubt, [to] domestic terrorism or international terrorism," she says. "But there are a lot of stopgap measures in place."

[READ: More About Cybersecurity]

Incidents like the salmonella outbreak alerted the U.S. government to vulnerabilities, similarly to the responses following Sept. 11, 2001, and the subsequent anthrax attacks. The Department of Homeland Security now works with the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Agriculture to ensure foods produced within the U.S. meet stringent standards.

As a result, for example, all milk containers bear a code near the spout or next to the expiration date that can tell the consumer where it came from and other information on its source.

These policies, however, also raise costs on domestic consumers, pushing some suppliers to look to more lax alternatives overseas.

Scott Hurd served as the undersecretary for food safety at the U.S. Department of Agriculture starting in 2008, when the USDA kicked Mexico and Brazil off its list of safe meat importers for not meeting these standards. That was the same year that the U.S. cracked down on milk products imported from China – including baby formula and dog food – containing the toxic protein additive melanine.

"We are essentially pushing food production offshore by more and more regulations within the U.S., then other countries end up growing our food supply," he says. Four years later, controversy over the use of "pink slime" in beef forced the U.S. to find a huge number of replacement cattle.

"In one day, when all the major groceries quit using this perfectly safe beef product, we had to all of a sudden find one million head of new cattle to replace the beef supply," says Hurd, who now teaches at the Iowa State University College of Veterinary Medicine. "Those were not in the U.S. We had to go offshore to find a million head."