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Industry not properly protected

On the day after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Romana Medeiros suggested to some of her colleagues that terrorism might be a viable threat to the food supply chain.

"Everyone laughed at me," says Medeiros, director of fresh ideas, for Costa Fruit and Produce, Boston, a $110 million independent distributor that was the ID Innovator of the Year in 2001.

No one is laughing now as the possibility of terrorists targeting the U.S. food supply chain has been rising in importance as a food safety issue in the past two years.

"I don't think the industry is properly protected," she says. "I don't think the food industry has really faced the problem head on."

The role of the distribution industry is to lobby the government for specific guidelines with regard to the possibility of terrorism affecting the food supply chain.

"(The industry) should get deeply involved," she says. "They should pressure Washington for guidelines that everyone of us should adhere to."

Medeiros believes it is the government's responsibility to come up with guidelines about what to do and how to do it and pass these guidelines along to the industry and to customers.

"The government (officials) are the ones who are in the know," she says. "They should be telling us what to do."

The United States Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) issued Directive 5420.1 on March 17 to detail its response in the event of a homeland security threat to the agricultural sector or the food supply. Potential actions could include unscheduled food security monitoring procedures that would override current procedures, sampling of specific products to ensure public health is protected and the taking of regulatory actions.

FSIS has also developed a set of security guidelines specifically for food processors, but these guidelines are voluntary.

Medeiros feels that any mandatory government regulations with regard to food security are far off into the future.

"If nothing happens, if there is no other 9/ 11, it will be another 10 to 15 years," she says. "If there is another 9/11, there will be laws coming out fast and furious."
Costa Fruit & Produce is not waiting for the government to develop mandatory guidelines. The company is being proactive in its response to the potential threat of terrorism.

Medeiros says she recently spent $60,000 on measures aimed at improving food security, including employee training, background checks and cameras.

One of Medeiros' recent projects was developing lockdown procedures in the event of a safety threat. She began reading about safety issues and procedures on the Internet and created a set of procedures for Costa.

She is also passing on food security tips to her company's operator customers, who are now realizing how important food security is.

"They are beginning to ask and I tell them what I have put in place," she says. "The reaction is now very positive from customers. They know that I am responsible."
In terms of preventing foodborne illnesses, Medeiros cites the main food safety issue as the "terribly extended shelf lives" for food products. Medeiros believes this is more of an issue for Costa's competitors because her staff is well trained in the prevention of foodborne illnesses.

"I don't have a terrible concern for food safety," she says. "I believe my products should be fresh. They should be cut that day and delivered the next day."

"I think all of us are doing a pretty good job on food safety," she adds, specifically addressing the fight to prevent foodborne illnesses.

Medeiros recently developed a presentation on the dos and don'ts of food safety such as proper techniques for hand washing and presented it to her customers, who in turn incorporated her suggestions into their daily routines.

Another key issue is pesticides control, including the government's need to monitor the use of pesticides at the growing stage.

Medeiros says Manuel Costa, president of Costa Fruit & Produce, expressed concerns about pesticides control during a meeting of the Pro*Act membership. Pro*Act is a purchasing and marketing collective for broadliners and produce specialists that allows the members to compete nationally while maintaining their independence. Costa is a cofounder of the cooperative, which was established in 1991.

However, Medeiros noted that although her distributorship has concerns about the pesticides issue, any movement toward improved regulation must be initiated by the government because distributors such as Costa neither have the power nor the resources to combat such problems.

"The government is not cracking down on that field," she says, citing the government's regulations of the fish industry as a potential model for change in the fruit and produce industry. "The government stepped in and really put down the law. There are very strict guidelines."

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