Helping Authorities Prepare for a Food-Related Emergency

By: Jason Bashura, M.P.H., R.S.

FDA has prepared a valuable tool that will help its regulatory and public health partners at the state, local, tribal and territorial levels be prepared for disasters that could compromise the safety of the food supply. 

The Food Related Emergency Exercise Bundle (FREE-B) is a compilation of scenarios based on both intentional and unintentional food contamination events. These “table top exercises” can help government regulatory and public health agencies assess their food-emergency response protocols and procedures. Additionally, tools, resources and external links are provided within FREE-B to help in response planning.  

One of the goals is to mitigate the effects of a large scale food emergency. Agencies become like actors in a play, trying out different roles and seeing how well they perform in a given scenario. What are their strengths? Are there gaps in emergency response plans? What relationships must be strengthened to help protect the public’s health and well-being?

FREE-B can also aid agencies that are in the process of revising or developing food emergency procedures. It is designed to allow an agency to interact with multiple partners, such as the medical community, private sector companies and law enforcement. It can also be used by an individual agency to test its own procedures.

Five scenarios currently make up the FREE-B package:

  • How Sweet It Is(n’t) – The regulatory traceback investigation and recall that occurs after testing shows a food product contains high levels of lead. 
  • Stealthy Situation – The nuances encountered when a cluster of illness is associated with a foodservice establishment.
  • Wilted Woes – The epidemiological investigation to identify the contaminated food when there is an unintentional contamination of produce with E. coli O157:H7.
  • High Plains Harbinger – The investigation of animal disease caused by intentional infection of cattle with Foot and Mouth Disease virus, highlighting the roles of animal agriculture and law enforcement agencies during an animal health emergency.
  • Insider Addition – Raw meat has intentionally been contaminated with a chemical agent at the food processing facility.

FREE-B’s overall goal is to facilitate the taking of appropriate, timely and effective steps during emergencies caused by intentional or unintentional acts. It does this by:

  • creating dynamic teams to face critical food emergency incidents;
  • assessing readiness of all involved to effectively address a food contamination incident; and,
  • defining roles and interactions with government agencies and food industry organizations, including understanding the resources that each of these bring to the table.

Users of Free-B are encouraged to evaluate this toolkit and provide feedback to the Food Defense Oversight Team, so that future versions of the tool can better prepare our partners.

Industry, academia and non-government organizations can also benefit from participating in one of these exercises.  Food defense truly is everybody’s business.

Jason Bashura, M.P.H., R.S., is a health scientist on the Food Defense Oversight Team at FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition

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