In January 2020, the U.S. was experiencing a growing economy and the lowest unemployment in years, and borrowing was at record low rates. We were on one of the “best rides” in recent years of economic growth when, abruptly, we were faced with a sweeping pandemic that we knew little about. Officially, American deaths from this disease have now reached a staggering 100,000; 40 million Americans have filed unemployment claims. Many Americans have unbridled accumulation of medical supportive care costs and are experiencing rampant food insecurity. Additionally, the U.S. government issued a massive federally funded economic assistance package, and at least one more package will soon follow.
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Explore This IssueJune/July 2020
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A 2019 report from the Brown University Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs Costs of War Project entitled “United States Budgetary Costs and Obligations of Post-9/11 Wars through FY2020: $6.4 Trillion” stated that al-Qaida spent an estimated $400,000 to $500,000 to plan and carry out the successful terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C. For Americans, it has cost much more. The report estimated that the War on Terror has cost the U.S. a total of $6.4 trillion through fiscal year 2020. It is quite probable that the estimated cost impact of COVID-19 on domestic public and economic health may exceed the wartime costs that resulted from the 9/11 attacks, with some analysts conservatively estimating the cost to be $7 trillion.
For our food supply, managing public health outbreaks depends strongly on well-structured food safety and food defense systems, clear communication, and access to information—key components that determine an appropriate public response to global incidents, as we have seen in past events, such as the melamine contamination that occurred in 2007 and 2008.
In any important food protection event, there is an urgent need to quickly provide the best available scientific information and knowledge about any incident. One food defense lesson we continue to learn is that there is never enough time to completely understand the magnitude of the problem, identified or unidentified, before choosing to inform the public health authorities and the public at large. Such preemptive actions can save lives and help to control the harmful extent of an outbreak.
While the fast-spreading, highly transmissible novel coronavirus caught most of the world by surprise, the scenario itself was not new. Through previous viral outbreaks in world history, we have learned that businesses large and small and, in particular, retailers (i.e., restaurants), which constitute approximately 20% of consumer spending in the U.S., would have been more prepared if they had had response and recovery plans in place. A disaster plan would include policies, including those preparing for a response to communicable disease, designed to keep employees safe and businesses viable. Advanced preparation for such a pandemic would have reduced the numbers of illnesses, deaths, and business failures that have affected healthcare workers, first responders, and the general public.
Lacking clear policy and direction from political leadership, society has responded with massive intervention of medical supportive care, attempts to dismantle social unrest, and administration of business and political triage.
It is a good moment to remind my readers that agriculture is designated as critical to public health and the nation’s economy. According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the sector annually produces more than $300 billion worth of food and other farm products, provides a major foundation for prosperity in rural areas, and is estimated to be responsible for providing one out of every 12 U.S. jobs. As such, several directives have established national policies to defend food and agricultural systems from various types of emergencies.
Homeland Security Presidential Directive-9 (HPSD-9). In January 2004, President George W. Bush established a national Homeland Security policy to defend the food and agriculture systems against terrorist attacks, major disasters, and other emergencies. HSPD-9 assigns federal agency responsibilities to enhance the nation’s preparedness for food and agriculture emergencies. For example, HSPD-9 assigns USDA responsibility for four efforts related to emergency response and recovery, including serving as co-lead with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to enhance recovery efforts.
USDA Emergency Support Function #11. Agriculture and Natural Resources organizes and coordinates federal support for the protection of the nation’s agricultural and natural and cultural resources during national emergencies. As defined in USDA Emergency Support Function (ESF) #11, USDA works during actual and potential incidents to provide nutrition assistance; respond to animal and agricultural health issues; provide technical expertise, coordination, and support of animal and agricultural emergency management; ensure the safety and defense of the nation’s supply of meat, poultry, and processed egg products; and ensure the protection of natural and cultural resources and historic properties.
Homeland Security Presidential Directive-7 (HSPD-7). HSPD-7, entitled “Critical Infrastructure Identification, Prioritization, and Protection,” established a national policy for federal departments and agencies to identify and prioritize critical infrastructure and key resources and to protect them from terrorist attacks.
Specifically, the policy was established in light of the following points:
- Terrorists seek to destroy, incapacitate, or exploit critical infrastructure and key resources across the U.S. to threaten national security, cause mass casualties, weaken our economy, and damage public morale and confidence.
- America’s open and technologically complex society includes a wide array of critical infrastructure and key resources that are potential terrorist targets. The majority of these are owned and operated by the private sector and state or local governments. These critical infrastructures and key resources are both physical and cyber-based and span all sectors of the economy.
- Critical infrastructure and key resources provide the essential services that underpin American society. The nation possesses numerous key resources, whose exploitation or destruction by terrorists could cause catastrophic health effects or mass casualties comparable to those from the use of a weapon of mass destruction or could profoundly affect our national prestige and morale. In addition, there is critical infrastructure so vital that its incapacitation, exploitation, or destruction, through terrorist attack, could have a debilitating effect on security and economic well-being.
It is not possible to protect or eliminate the vulnerabilities in all critical infrastructures and throughout the country by implementation of fail-safe improvements in food defense. From what we have learned with COVID-19, we can make it more difficult for a wide-scale attack to succeed and can lessen the impact of any intentional attacks on our food that may occur.
NIMS. The Federal Emergency Management System released a refreshed version of the National Incident Management System (NIMS) doctrine on October 2017. NIMS provides a common, nationwide approach to enable the entire U.S. community to work together to manage all threats and hazards. NIMS is structured to apply to all incidents, regardless of cause, size, location, or complexity.
NIMS guides all levels of government, nongovernmental organizations, and the private sector to work together to prevent, protect against, mitigate, respond to, and recover from incidents. The doctrine provides stakeholders across the whole community with the shared vocabulary, systems, and processes to successfully deliver the capabilities described in the National Preparedness System. NIMS defines operational systems, including the Incident Command System, Emergency Operations Center structures, and Multiagency Coordination Groups that guide how personnel work together during incidents. I encourage you, as food industry, government, and academic readers, to re-review these important national incident management programs as they relate to your important role in the protection of food and agriculture.
COOP. Prepandemic, businesses that possessed a disaster response and continuity of operations plan (COOP) playbook are faring far better than others in facing these uncertainties. COOP is defined in the National Continuity Policy Implementation Plan and the National Security Presidential Directive 51/Homeland Security Presidential Directive 20. The model is a federal effort residing within individual executive departments and agencies to ensure that primary mission essential functions continue to be performed during a wide range of emergencies, including localized acts of nature, accidents, and technological or attack-related emergencies. Those who had no contingency planning have fared worse in this pandemic.
Preparing for the Future
So, what else can we do to learn from our COVID-19 experience and prepare for the continuing global disaster? Consider some of the following lessons, learned from this pandemic so far, that are also useful as food defense lessons:
- Whether you are faced with a natural disaster or unintentional or intentional attack on your food business, a pre-event preparedness, disaster, and COOP (i.e., resilience) plan is a business essential.
- Leadership is particularly required in crisis and is critical to formulating and implementing disaster policy and procedure in both the government and private sector.
- To maintain credibility and trustworthiness with the public, involve applied science and risk communication subject matter experts in conveying the facts to the public.
- Do not speculate on what “might be” the facts of the event when communicating with the public.
- Government mistrust generates citizen complacency in responding to a true public health threat.
- Delay in decision making adds to the severity and public health mistrust in managing the given situation.
- Clear and concise instructions must be communicated to all stakeholders in preparing for and responding to a public health emergency and must be consistently reinforced by all public officials.
- Prompt coordination and communication among specific appropriate federal, state, and local government agencies in preparedness and response are absolutely required, based upon the actual public health event.
- As in any risk assessment, predetermine the severity and criticality of high consequence threats (even with low probability of occurrence) that could take your food business down; consider preemptive actions you could take to mitigate irreparable business damage.
- What is the effect of supply chain interruptions and redistribution pathways on your ability to find materials required in manufacturing your products?
- How can you simplify your operations where there are limited available resources, including labor and raw materials, along with loss of customers?
- What additional business and operational food defense vulnerabilities might arise when normally available resources dwindle or manufacturing operations change?
- How can you quickly and creatively assist employees, customers, and suppliers using your disaster resources?
- Pre-plan for the safety and protection of your employees and their families in the event of any disaster—they are the heart of a successful sustainable business.
- How can the business help others in time of crisis?
- What reserves are available that would help the business to respond to, mitigate, and recover from a significant event (e.g., labor, cash reserves, self-insurance coverage, financial assistance, deferred payments, production scale-up, production modifications)?
- How might supply chain interruptions affect the ability of your business to sustain basic operations and elements of the contingency plan, and how might sourcing and procurement be affected?
- What front and back-office back-up communication and data storage systems are available to activate in the event of an emergency?
- If you are a significantly sized employer, make sure disaster planning and response and recovery discussions include local, state, regional, and national (federal) policy decision-makers.
Most importantly, given what we have witnessed with COVID-19 in a few short months, how should we prepare and respond to a future public health crisis involving our food supply?
Park is the principal for Food-Defense, LLC. He has practiced food protection technical management consulting for 46 years, is an FDA-recognized international management processing authority, and is an FSPCA PCQI lead instructor. Reach him at email@example.com.