updated 12/6/2004 7:30:56 PM ET 2004-12-07T00:30:56

New rules announced Monday will make it easier to investigate a bioterror attack on the U.S. food supply, though they won’t change the underlying problem: the vulnerability of the nation’s food.

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The vulnerabilities were highlighted last week by Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, who said he worries “every single night” about a possible terror attack on the food supply.

“For the life of me, I cannot understand why the terrorists have not attacked our food supply because it is so easy to do,” Thompson said at a news conference announcing his resignation.

Thompson singled out the possibility that infected food would be imported from the Middle East, but experts say the threat is equally serious for food produced domestically.

“There are any number of threats, and they range from what’s done across the oceans to what’s done in the kitchen in the restaurant that you’re eating in,” said Michael Osterholm, associate director of the National Center for Food Protection and Defense at the University of Minnesota, a project of the Department of Homeland Security.

Tracing the source of contamination
The regulations announced Monday by the Food and Drug Administration aim to trace the source of food contamination after the fact. Most businesses involved in the nation’s human and animal food supply will have to keep records showing where they received food and where they shipped it.

The idea is to help investigators figure out where in a long chain a particular item may have been tainted.

“The ability to trace back will enable us to get to the source of contamination,” said acting FDA Commissioner Dr. Lester Crawford.

Monday’s regulation is the fourth in a series of FDA rules implementing a 2002 bioterrorism law, passed after the 2001 anthrax attacks by mail.

Previous regulations required food facilities to register with the FDA and required those exporting food to the United States to give American inspectors advance notice before shipments arrived.

Prevention still a problem
These are commonsense rules that will help FDA trace the source of contamination, but they don’t do anything to prevent attacks, said Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Also needed, she said: more FDA inspections of food coming into the country and authority for the agency to inspect foreign plants.

She noted that after that anthrax attacks the FDA got $100 million to increase inspections of food coming into the country but still only inspects 2 percent of it — up from 1 percent a few years ago.

The FDA regulates 80 percent of the U.S. food supply; the Department of Agriculture regulates the rest. DeWaal said Agriculture rules require inspections of meat and poultry plants abroad, something she says the FDA would benefit from.

The agency responded that it is doing a better job picking what food to inspect once it arrives at U.S. shores, using newly mandated data filed by companies that import into the country.

“We don’t need and can’t inspect every article of food,” Crawford said. Still, he said, something lethal could slip through. “We have a long, long border that is not wired and not fenced,” he said, while adding, “We are far better off than we were three years ago.”

Wide-ranging threats
The threats are wide-ranging: a deadly toxin injected into the food supply, germs infecting livestock at a fair — and then humans in turn, terrorists dropping pathogens into food at a restaurant chain, causing small amounts of illness but large amounts of publicity.

“People would stay away from that chain in droves,” Osterholm said. What matters is the effect on American psyches, he said. “We have to understand that’s what terrorism is all about.”

The new FDA rules affect people who manufacturer, process, pack, transport, distribute, receive, hold or import food. Officials at every step must keep records showing the chain of supply, including the immediate previous source of all food received and the next recipient of all food released. Exempted by law are restaurants and farmers.

Companies will be required to make these records available if the FDA has a reasonable belief that an article of food presents a serious threat.

Large companies have a year to comply with the new regulations. Smaller companies have up to two years.

An industry trade group, the National Food Processors Association, said its members would work hard to understand and implement the new rules.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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