Cyber attacks and ransomware are among the top emerging threats to food companies, according to panellists on food fraud and protection.
Tim Lang, Jennifer van de Ligt and John Woody talked about food safety and the many definitions recent Health Talks webinar organized by the World Health Organization (WHO).
Lang, professor of food policy at City University London’s Center for Food Policy, said the term “food protection” is being used too narrowly.
“Problems in the food system are not only related to food safety, they include climate change, social and political issues. Think only about Ukraine. The risks to food protection are not only medical or microbiological,” he said.
Potential cyber failure
Lang said food protection is in a group of topics including food democracy, food control, food self-sufficiency, food sustainability, food risks, food capacity and food sovereignty. Different points of view compete for political space such as public health, military, legal, sustainable development, behavioral and social.
“Now we have cybersecurity; why does it matter in food? Because modern logistics is exactly in time and satellites. Violating this is a way to disrupt the country’s food supply. All of these are arguments in favor of food protection having a social element. Along with this approach to assessing food safety and risks in the food trade, we need a more gentle and community-based approach to ensure food sustainability in systems.”
According to Lang, four decades have been invested in just-in-time logistics.
“This cyber threat stems from the investments we have made in ultra-efficient computer logistics and satellites. We know that diseases have crossed borders for centuries, but what’s new is a more complex food distribution system, and the infrastructure hasn’t kept up. The answer lies in better international cooperation. Cybersecurity concerns are a new avenue for potential disruption, where intentional fraud and receiving money to pay to end a scam are linked. The potential for using food as a weapon is ahead of our regulatory approaches.”
Lang said a rethink is needed now for a number of reasons.
“Food systems have changed, there has been a revolution. It’s uneven, it’s way ahead in a rich world where the population is overeating and just under a billion people are starving. There are huge food safety problems in developing countries. The political economy is in turmoil and price volatility has been constant,” he said.
“The broad public health approach to food protection needs to be developed and refined, good safe food cannot be left to companies, it is about consumers, civil society, culture, etc., this broader approach to food protection products gives space for the introduction of social aspects. stress on emerging food systems, and this cannot be done at the UN level alone, it must be done at the global, regional, international, city and local levels.”
There is a tendency in the field of public advocacy to treat food safety and fraud issues as separate rather than broad-based, Lang said.
“There’s always a tension between saying it’s a specific person, a badly run company, or bad training. There are times when you need to look at the system as a whole, and I think we’re in one of those moments where we need to rethink a lot.”
Van de Ligt, director of the Institute for Food Defense and Defense, said food protection regulation is much newer than food safety and is not always recognized globally.
“Food is an attractive target: everyone eats all over the world, it is very easy to use as a weapon, and it is very difficult to detect and trace where adulteration has occurred. We are also talking about an intelligent adversary, this is a person who understands the system, understands how to find vulnerabilities, gain access and avoid detection. Most don’t want to get caught. They want to do it for a long time to make money, but sometimes they are wrong,” she said.
“When I speak to industry representatives, the main thing I want to say is vulnerability, and the food industry can control this. It could be a disgruntled employee or a contractor who is angry with the company, they can cause wide-ranging public health harm, so focusing only on terrorism motives does not justify the broader concept of food protection.”
According to van de Ligt, three things are needed for a food safety incident: motivation, capabilities, and vulnerabilities.
“We have economically motivated fraud, sabotage and terrorism. Economically motivated adulteration has been common for a very long time, one of the most significant incidents being when melamine was added to dairy products in China. Deliberate falsification occurs when there is an incentive or opportunity,” she said.
“If you think about the current environment, tough economic conditions are right here. With shortages, supply chain gaps and war in Ukraine, the global environment is ripe for food fraud cases. We are seeing an increase in labor shortages and transport problems, and this creates certain difficulties in terms of food protection, which creates the conditions for new food crimes.
“The problem is that different countries use different terms. In the UK it’s a food crime, in the US we use food fraud or economically motivated adulteration, some countries prefer food integrity or authenticity or adulteration.”
Regulation and FDA approach
Woody of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said there is a low likelihood that biological or chemical contaminants will enter food with the intent to harm people, but the potential wide-ranging public health impacts could be significant.
The 2016 FDA Intentional Adulteration Rule applies to importers and domestic food manufacturers.
“We planned to start inspections in 2020, but the pandemic has extended the timeframe. We have started site inspections and will continue to educate our regulators on how to evaluate these food protection plans,” Woody said.
“In developing the deliberate falsification rule, the FDA saw that the industry was facing many different challenges. It’s hard to keep talking about deliberate falsification when, fortunately, it’s not a problem. Companies have to prioritize their own limited resources in dealing with these important issues, and sometimes there is a sense of fatigue. We’re trying to get through this and do what we need to do and remember that the resources of the industry are at their limit.”
The FDA continues to focus on cybersecurity, Woody said, and there are many ransomware issues affecting food companies.
“Cyber is something we have been paying more and more attention to in recent years. There are ransomware issues, but we’re looking at the connection between cybersecurity and public health. Part of that process was self-education and reaching out to others who have the experience to keep up with the times.”
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