FOOD SECURITY Defined as a condition in which all people have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and preferences, food security is considered by the United Nations a basic human right. The current world food system normally functions efficiently, at least in an economic sense, though not a moral one. It provides at reasonable prices adequate food of their choice to those who can afford to pay for it.
Thus food security is a problem of the poor, in poor countries. The hungry of the world are hungry because they are poor. They are poor because they own too few resources of land, capital, or skills. Poverty can also be a most vicious circle, since from lack of food the poor may not be physically or mentally productive enough to earn adequate income, thus perpetuating their poverty. Hunger is primarily a problem of poverty, not of food production. If all the world's poor were given sufficient income, more food would be demanded and produced. But if more food were produced because farmers were given higher prices, the poor, whose incomes would not have changed, would remain hungry.
Food security for a country is also a matter of under-development. A poor country deficient in food production is vulnerable to transient influences that reduce domestic production or increase world market prices, as it cannot import the food it needs. While it is conceivable—for example, in some nuclear winter scenarios—that global food production could fall so much below the demand that even rich nations would not find enough food, such supply shortages are very unlikely. The technological food production potential of the world, even without exotic technologies, is so great that the inability to produce food at any cost is not likely to threaten the food security of wealthy nations.
What constitutes "adequate" food intake is still a matter of contention among nutritionists. The general approach is to consider the basal metabolic rate, the number of calories that a person needs while lying down but wide awake, and take some multiple of that as the norm for adequate caloric intake. Metabolic rates vary, of course, across similar individuals (in height, weight, gender) and also across time for a given individual. Individuals learn to live with fewer (or more) calories over time. Yet, no matter how one measures hunger and poverty, one finds that hundreds of millions of persons suffer from hunger and poverty in the world and in India.
In addition to the millions who suffer from persistent hunger, many others who normally get enough to eat live precariously on the margin of subsistence. They are vulnerable to all manner of external influences, which can easily reduce their food consumption and bring them into the ranks of the hungry. A major threat to the already inadequate food consumption of the poor is from any temporary drop in real income. The real income of the poor can also fall because food prices rise.
When India's monsoon rains fail, the poor not only lose employment but food prices rise as well. Even when the rains fail in a remote, prosperous country, the price of food for the poor may increase. The rich country would then either export less food grains or import more grains, and the world market prices of food grains would go up. A country's booming domestic economy could aggravate the hunger of the poor if their incomes do not rise as rapidly as do increases in food prices. Apart from such sudden drops in real income, a creeping loss may occur if employment opportunities do not keep pace with the growth in the labor force.
Both persistent hunger and transient hunger, the extreme form of which is famine, have underlined the fact that to deal with chronic hunger is to deal with poverty and underdevelopment. Amartya Sen (1981) and Jean Drèze and Sen (1989) have extensively examined how to deal with the extreme case of transient hunger, namely, famine. Famines have led to large-scale deaths since World War II in some countries but not in India. The question is why some governments fail to take effective action in time to prevent mass deaths due to famine. Drèze and Sen stress the role that freedom of the press and media plays in mobilizing timely and effective action against famine.
The State of Food Security in India
India's national level of food security is reflected in the availability of food, whose net availability at the aggregate level in per capita terms has been maintained at reasonable levels and has been increasing over the years, though since 1997 it has been coming down a bit for two reasons. Diversification due to better quality food (milk, edible oils, etc.) has reduced demand for grains; and high levels of minimum support prices for wheat and rice set by the government reduced the demand and increased output and led to net accretion of nearly 40 million tons of buffer stocks from 1997 to 2001.
Domestic production of food grains, dependent to a large extent on India's rains, fluctuates from year to year. The government thus holds buffer stocks of food grains to ensure that availability does not suffer. The size of the buffer stock should be adequate to fill the gap of any fall in production caused by a sequence of poor monsoons, keeping prices at reasonable levels.
The state of food insecurity at the individual level is reflected in the number of persons who do not get adequate food to eat and who show signs of malnutrition. The poverty line in India is defined as the level of consumer expenditure at which people in rural areas will consume 2,400 calories per person per day and those in urban areas 2,100 calories per person per day. Based on household consumption surveys carried out by the National Sample Survey Organization the estimated number of persons below the poverty line has been coming down. Transient hunger, however, can throw almost 10 percent of India's rural population into poverty from one year to the next.
Government programs, such as buffer stock policy, to provide food security have not been very effective. Another indicator of food insecurity is the level of malnutrition in India. In 1997–1998 the percentage of stunted children (height-for-age) was 57.1 percent among the rural poor and 49.6 percent in urban areas, very high proportions indeed.
Policies for Food Security
Once adequate food is available at the national level, providing food security to all is to provide adequate real income to all. The government has followed a variety of policies to do so. Poverty removal has been the main objective of all of India's five-year plans and all political parties. The policies have included transfers of food, such as public distribution of food at subsidized prices through ration shops, Midday Meal programs, Mother and Child Nutrition programs, and income-enhancing programs, such as employment guarantee plans, Food for Work, and other employment programs, and many other antipoverty programs, described briefly below.
Under the public distribution system, selected items of mass consumption, such as wheat, rice, other cereals, sugar, oil, and kerosene, are provided at subsidized prices to ration card holders in limited quantities. People are free to buy additional quantities in the open market. Ration cards are now issued to everyone. This program is now considered one of the government's most significant antipoverty initiatives. In 2004, under the Targeted Public Distribution System, each family below the poverty line is entitled to a quota of 22 pounds (10 kg) of food grains at subsidized prices (about 50% of cost). Families above the poverty line received a lower subsidy (90% of cost). However, the large difference between the issue price to the poor and the open market price provided incentives for diversion of considerable amounts of grain into the open market, and such leakage, coupled with exclusion errors in targeting, implied that very little subsidy reached the poor. The objective of providing adequate food to all has not as yet been realized.
Antyodaya Anna Yojana
This program was introduced in early 2001 for the poorest of the poor, as identified by gram panchayats (village leaders) and gram sabhas (village councils). Antyodaya households are entitled to 77 pounds (35 kg) of grain a month at highly subsidized prices (Rs. 2 per kg for wheat, and Rs. 3 per kg for rice). A survey of destitution in five states indicates that the program is doing well. The selection of Antyodaya households appears to be quite fair. In some areas, however, the survey found that many households had been deprived of their entitlements by ration shop dealers. The program covers only about 5 percent of the rural population. If these limitations are overcome, the Antodaya program holds much promise.
Food security through ICDS
Malnutrition among children and women is severe in India. Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS), perhaps the largest of all food supplementation programs in the world, was initiated in 1975 to: improve the health and nutrition of children in the 0–6 year age group by providing supplementary food; to provide early stimulation and education to preschool children; to provide pregnant and lactating women with food supplements; and to enhance mothers' abilities to provide proper child care through health and nutrition education.
A World Bank and Government of India review in 1997 found that ICDS services were much in demand, but there are problems in delivery, quality, and coordination. The program might perhaps be improving food security at the household level, but has failed to effectively address the issues of prevention, undernourished child/mother detection, and management.
Food security through midday meals to school-children
The provision of free midday meals to schoolchildren encourages enrollment and retention, in addition to providing food security to children. School feeding programs often double enrollment within a year and can produce a 40 percent improvement in academic performance in just two years, the World Food Program has found in its study of a number of states in India.
The program, first introduced in the southern state of Tamil Nadu in 1956, has proved remarkably successful in improving school enrollment in that state. With modest cost, the benefit has been dramatic, increasing school enrollment in the state: in primary schools, up 31 percent, from 5.04 million in 1985–1986 to 6.59 million in 2002–2003; in middle schools, dropouts decreased from 24 to 13.85 percent during the same period. Apart from boosting school attendance and child nutrition, midday meals have an important social value. As children learn to sit together and share meals, there may be an erosion of caste prejudices; the gender gap may also be reduced as female school attendance increases.
The Supreme Court of India in November 2001 directed all of India's "State Governments/Union Territories to implement the Mid-Day Meal Scheme" in every government and government-assisted primary school, offering every child a midday meal of no fewer than 300 calories and 8–12 grams of protein each day of school, for at least 200 days.
Food security through employment programs
The best-known employment program is Maharashtra's Employment Guarantee Scheme (EGS), started on 26 January 1979, guaranteeing employment to all adults eighteen years and above who are willing to do unskilled manual work. The act bestows a right to work on every adult person residing in rural areas of Maharashtra. Only the needy offer themselves for work, and the supply of employment has to adjust to demand, so that fluctuations over seasons and over years are automatically taken into consideration. It is also self liquidating. When economic growth provides opportunities for better paying jobs, people would automatically stop coming for work in EGS programs. Though EGS has not eliminated rural poverty in Maharashtra, there is some evidence of decline in the depth of poverty there. Another important benefit of EGS is that by providing an alternative opportunity for employment to rural workers, it increases their bargaining power and increases rural wages.
The many programs to provide food security have surely made some impact and have been extremely important as short-term measures. However, perhaps the best long-term measure for food security is economic development that provides enough income for all Indians to buy as much food as they need.
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Hirway, I., and P. Terhal. Towards Employment Guarantee in India. New Delhi: Sage Publications, 1994.
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Parikh, K. S., ed. India Development Report, 1997. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1997.
——. India Development Report, 1999–2000. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Parikh, K. S., and R. Radhakrishna, eds. India Development Report, 2002. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2002.
Sen, A. K. Poverty and Famines. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981.
Influenced by prominent English economist Thomas Malthus (1766–1834), people in the nineteenth century began to fear that the planet Earth might not produce enough food for its growing population. Yet it turns out that Malthus was wrong. Although the world's population grew from 1 billion (in 1804) to 6 billion (in 1999), a global food shortage failed to materialize. Agricultural machinery, artificial fertilizers, and improved seeds were among the many products that were invented or developed to help accommodate the growing population.
Of course, now as it was then, there are many hungry people in the world. Living mainly in the developing countries , a third of the world's current population, or about 2 billion people, are considered undernourished. Of those, about 500 million children suffer from inadequate or unbalanced diets.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s there occurred a "Green Revolution" in which scientists, through selective plant breeding, developed highyielding varieties of key food crops, especially wheat, rice, and corn. Relying substantially on these varieties, India for several years in the 1970s was able to feed its population of almost 1 billion, and still have grain left over for export.
Of at least equal importance was the availability of irrigation. In India's breadbasket, the Punjab, water for irrigation came either from a state-operated canal system drawing water from the Indus River or from shallow wells equipped with small pumps installed by the farmers themselves but with electricity supplied by state-operated power lines.
Toward the end of the twentieth century, growth in the extent of irrigation began to taper off with a decline in some countries. Scarcity of water was a key factor in several regions including the Middle East, North Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, China, Mexico, and Brazil. As a result, growing water scarcities gave rise to serious political conflicts.
Preventing Food Shortages
Food shortages lead to unwanted migrations across national borders, and to cut-and-burn agriculture that causes soil erosion and damage to tropical forests. International agencies like the United Nations and the World Bank play a key role in deciding what actions to take in order to circumvent food shortages. There are several factors, outlined below, that must be considered when deciding on such actions.
Population increases plus the desire for more meat in the diet will greatly raise the global demand for grains. In China, for example, grain production is presently reaching limits and is expected to decline substantially in the coming decades (as shown in part (a) of the figure below). Although the global output of grain rose greatly during the 1960s and 1970s, there has been little or no rise since 1990. World grain prices soared in 1995 and may double by 2010.
Moreover, the area of grain land per person has been dropping (as shown in part (b) of the figure below), caused by growing urbanization and deterioration of agricultural land. Fertilizer use worldwide has decreased since 1990, since the increased yield due to its application has become too small to be profitable.
Major aquifers are being overpumped, including those of the Punjab of India and Pakistan, North China, northwest Mexico, and the Ogallala in the western United States. Rapid urbanization is increasing competition for scarce water and reducing its availability for agriculture. Other water-related negative effects are being caused by salinization (salt buildup in soil), pollution , soil erosion, and flooding.
Other than scarce water, serious impediments to agricultural production in the developing countries results from fragmentation of landholdings, poor land management, and ineffective macroeconomic policies with respect to land tenure, land taxation, subsidies , and export and import taxes.
Global warming, largely caused by burning of fossil fuels, could result in climatic changes that would affect agricultural production, the availability of water, and the frequency and duration of floods.
Importance of Irrigated Agriculture
Arable land on the planet, totaling about 1.5 billion hectares (5.8 million square miles), is almost fully utilized. The one-sixth that is in the irrigated sector worldwide, about 250 million hectares (970,000 square miles), will have to be the main supplier of the increased demand (see the pie chart). However, its output will have to be greatly increased in order to meet the demand.
Except for the very small amount of fresh water derived from the seas through desalinization , the volume of fresh water available for human use approximates the amount of precipitation, less evapotranspiration , less what becomes locked in glaciers and ice sheets, less what runs off to the sea. Worldwide, this amount is estimated to average 40,000 cubic kilometers (9,600 cubic miles) annually, and it is a ceiling that cannot be exceeded. In other words, consuming fresh water faster than it can be naturally replenished will reduce and ultimately deplete supplies if the use goes unabated.
Because water can rarely be transported economically more than a few hundred kilometers, the local and regional amounts of available water are what matters, not the global amount.
Many dams that store flood runoff, which would otherwise flow to the sea, have already been built. Because few opportunities exist worldwide for the additional construction of major dams, the alternative is conservation . Conservation must include reduction of per capita domestic use, reduction of losses caused by pollution, and increase in the efficiency of water use by irrigation, which globally is by far the biggest water user.
Land and Wetland Drainage.
Extensive tropical-humid zones with monsoon-type climates exist in South and Central America, Mexico, Sub-Saharan Africa, and South Asia where there is scope for intensifying agricultural outputs through "supplemental irrigation," which means supplying water for occasional dry spells or to advance planting dates, thereby taking better advantage of the monsoon . Owing to their wetness, such zones must first be drained. Irrigation can come later, as a supplement.
Drainage of wetlands must be carried out with caution so as to reconcile the conflicting demands of agriculture, urban development, transport, and ecosystem maintenance. The Everglades in Florida is an extensive wetland system whose major portions were drained artificially to create land for cities and for agriculture. Water also has been diverted to meet primarily agricultural needs. Now there is the realization that the Everglades may have been overdrained, causing discharge to the sea of precious water needed to recharge aquifers—the source of water for the cities of South Florida—and to preserve habitats for wildlife.
In addition to overdrainage, serious pollution problems in the Everglades have arisen that endanger the aquifers and marine fisheries. Much of the pollution is from fertilizers, pesticides, and chemicals used for the cultivating and processing of sugarcane grown on the drained land. The problems of the Everglades are now being rectified but at high cost to the federal government and the taxpayers of Florida. A much larger wetland, the Pantanal in Brazil and Bolivia, is at an early stage of development and faces similar problems.
see also Agriculture and Water; Everglades; Florida, Water Management in; Hydropolitics; Hydrosolidarity; Irrigation Management; Population and Water Resources.
Phillip Z. Kirpich
Brown, Lester R., ed. State of the World—1995. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.,1996.
International Irrigation Management Institute. "Feeding the World." IMMI Review, Table 1. Colombo, Sri Lanka: IIMI, 1994.
Kirpich, Phillip. Water Planning for Food Production in Developing Countries. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1999.
A shallow well is generally any drilled or dug well with depth below ground surface not exceeding 10 meters (33 feet). In areas without electricity, water is lifted out of the well using manual or animal-driven devices. A motorized pump, if provided, is at the ground surface with the end of its suction pipe immersed below the water surface in the well.
Decrease in water use by irrigation must be accomplished without impairing food production. It may be possible to replace high-water-demand crops with low-water-demand crops that also have higher value. For example, fruits, vegetables, and flowers can replace relatively high-water-demand crops such as rice, wheat, and sugarcane. The water saved, called "virtual water," can then be shifted to other uses.
FOOD SECURITY. Most people are familiar with the terms "national security" or "home security," but relatively few are familiar with the term "food security." These terms convey a sense of an absence of or lowered risk; a home is less likely to be burglarized, a nation's state secrets are less likely to fall into the hands of unfriendly nations. Food security has similar connotations in relation to food. According to the 1996 World Food Summit, food security exists "when every person has physical and economic access at all times to healthy and nutritious food in sufficient quantity to cover the needs of their daily ration and food preferences, in order to live a healthy and active life."
In its simplest form, food security means that all people have enough to eat at all times to be healthy and active, and do not have to fear that the situation will change in the future. As a concept it can be applied at many levels—global, national, household, and individual.
There are three fundamental pillars in achieving food security. The first is food availability. At the global level this is the key factor—sufficient food must be grown to ensure that everyone can be adequately fed. In the early 1970s several political missteps, combined with droughts, raised concerns about whether this could be attained. Indeed the crises of the early 1970s which resulted in high world grain prices led to an international conference in 1974 and the founding of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), the World Food Council, and the FAO Committee on World Food Security. Today the world is food secure from the perspective of food availability, and global grain prices are less costly in real terms than at any time in recent decades.
The next pillar of food security is access to food—economic and physical. This pillar is critical at the national and household levels. At the national level, if a country does not produce all the food it consumes then it must import food. A number of countries are too poor to purchase food on the international market and thus have a structural food deficit. International food aid must make up the shortfall. At local and household levels the market distribution system needs to be adequate to ensure that food is available at all marketplaces.
At the household level, sufficient levels of food must be grown, or purchased at the marketplace, or some combination of the two. Thus poverty plays the major role in food insecurity. Generally, if there is too little food it is the result of inadequate food demand driven by poverty rather than of market failure.
The third pillar of food security is food utilization, important at the household level and critical at the individual level, which brings together both the quality of the food and other complementary factors such as safe water that underpin good nutritional outcomes. This is the pillar that ensures the nutritional outcomes of every individual in the household are adequate. This is a very complex pillar. First, the household must be able to obtain, through production or purchase, the right types of food for all household members. Inadequate dietary diversity, which results in mineral and micronutrient deficiencies, increases the incidence of sickness, which sets up a vicious cycle of malnutrition. Second, unsafe water and poor sanitation increase the likelihood of frequent illness, which affects nutritional outcomes. Third, mothers need to have sufficient time to care for small children who require frequent feeding. In the developing world many poor mothers face excessive time burdens given the absence of electricity, or running water, or labor-saving food preparation devices. Many hours can be spent fetching firewood and water, growing food, processing it, and finally cooking it. Fourth, food must be available to all household members according to their needs. In some areas of the world, notably south Asia, girls and women in poor households often receive less food than they need even though the household has sufficient amounts. They are also less likely to receive health care when they become sick. In 1995 more than 6 million children died of causes associated with being underweight. Today the growth of one in three children five years old and younger is stunted, that is, they are too short for their age, a stark testimony to a life of too little food and too much sickness.
International concerns with regard to food security have shifted in the last three decades. In the 1960s and early 1970s, with rising world grain prices, fears arose that the world would run out of food in the future as its population grew ever larger. Major improvements in agricultural productivity, particularly the impact of the "Green Revolution" on wheat and rice, have removed that fear despite a population that increased from 1.6 billion in 1900 to 6.1 billion by 2000. Today the expectation is that new advances in agriculture, particularly in biotechnology, will increase agricultural productivity sufficiently to feed a world population expected to stabilize at about 9.3 billion. This expectation, together with abundant global grain supplies at record low prices, has removed the specter of food insecurity from the agenda of most policymakers.
Today, the focus of the international development community and many policymakers is on the AIDS crisis in Africa, which is finally attracting enormous attention and with it the promise of more economic assistance. AIDS kills about 6 million people a minute, a tragedy by any definition. Yet this tragedy pales in significance when compared to the 12 million people a day who die of causes related to malnutrition, the ultimate outcome of food insecurity. The 1996 World Food Summit called for the number of undernourished people in the world to be cut in half by 2015—a not insurmountable goal given current world food supplies and their predicted trend. Reducing hunger and food insecurity today is a matter of political will. However, past performance indicates the goal is unlikely to be met. Despite falling food prices during the 1990s, the number of undernourished fell by only 40 million, with the average rate of decline slowing to just 6 million per year by the end of the decade. Achievement of the WFS target requires that at least 22 million people a year are removed from the ranks of the food insecure.
Recognition that food supplies are adequate but political will lacking has led to a new emphasis on food as a human right. The plan of action emanating from the 1996 WFS highlighted the need to implement Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and called on countries, United Nations agencies, and intergovernmental agencies to better implement and realize the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger. In 2001 the international food security community has a double focus with a delicate balance—how to engage sufficient political will to secure food as a human right today, while maintaining a commitment to increasing agricultural productivity that will be required if we are to feed a more than 50 percent larger population by midcentury without further damaging the environment in the future.
See also Food Supply and the Global Food Market ; Food Supply, Food Shortages .
Bread for the World Institute. Hunger 1999: The Changing Politics of World Hunger. Silver Spring, Md.: Bread for the World Institute, 1998.
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. The State of Food Insecurity in the World: When People Live with Hunger and Fear Starvation. 3rd ed. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2001.
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. World Food Summit: Five Years Later. 2002. Available at www.fao.org
Pinstrup-Andersen, Per, and Rajul Pandya-Lorch, eds. The Unfinished Agenda. Perspectives on Overcoming Hunger, Poverty, and Environmental Degradation. Washington, D.C.: International Food Policy Research Institute, 2001
Wiebe, Keith, Nicole Ballenger, and Per Pinstrup-Andersen, eds. Who Will Be Fed in the 21st Century: Challenges for Science and Policy. Washington, D.C.: International Food Policy Research Institute, 2001.
Famines, the worst manifestations of food insecurity, occur in specific areas when widespread and extreme hunger result in drastic weight loss and a rising death rate. They generally occur in rural areas and are the result of a complex interaction of factors such as drought, civil unrest, floods, and economic disruptions. Today, famines are rare and should be confined to the past. There is more than enough food in the world to feed everyone. Global information systems enable policymakers to predict when famine is likely, either as a result of crop failure due to drought or pest or because of civil unrest and war. Famine in today's world is testimony to policy failure, not the absence of food. Food insecurity, on the other hand, is a fact of life today for many people. Today, 815 million people go to bed at night not knowing whether they will have enough to eat tomorrow. Each year, more than 6 million children do not live to see their fifth birthday. They die silently of causes associated with hunger and malnutrition, absent the widespread media attention that famine attracts.
When investigating an illness outbreak or a death, one of the possibilities that a forensic investigator will assess is the involvement of food. The accidental or malicious contamination of food can be debilitating or, depending on the agent involved, fatal.
A variety of microorganisms or compounds produced by the organisms can contaminate food. As well, inorganic compounds in food can cause illness. Knowledge of the type of food and symptoms displayed can guide a forensic investigator in uncovering the source of the food contamination.
For example, if the nature of the last meal eaten and the symptoms demonstrated by the person affected are known, then forensic examination of the blood for the presence of a particular bacterial toxin may be a prudent step.
Food supplies can be compromised accidentally or deliberately. Since the terrorist attacks on United States soil in September 2001, much concern has focused on the susceptibility of food supplies to deliberate contamination.
Obtaining a strain of bacteria or virus that causes plant or animal diseases is much easier than obtaining a highly infectious human pathogen. Agricultural pathogens can even be obtained from the environment. For example, scraping the surface of infected leaves is sufficient to recover some disease-causing viruses. Both the former Soviet Union and Iraq are known to have experimented with agricultural pathogens.
Microorganisms can also be purchased from supply laboratories. An organization with convincing paperwork would be able to acquire microbes that are not considered to be highly infectious.
The advent of recombinant DNA technology in the 1970s—where a segment of genetic material coding for a protein of interest (i.e., a toxin) can be isolated and spliced into the DNA of a target microbe—holds the potential for the genetic modification of bacteria or viruses that are common in the environment. These genetic versions could spread quickly through the natural world.
Aside from deliberate contamination, food can harbor some types of harmful bacteria such as Clostridium botulinum and Escherichia coli O157:H7, and can cause illness when the food is eaten. Depending on the type of bacteria involved, the mere presence of the bacteria or its toxin may be sufficient to cause illness. Other bacteria need to grow to high numbers in the food before they become noxious. A well-known example is the bacterium Staphylococcus aureus, which has been identified in historical food poisoning outbreaks resulting from contaminated and improperly stored foods such as potato salad.
Different types of microorganisms contaminate different types of food. For example, the aforementioned Clostridium botulinum requires the absence of oxygen. Thus, improperly prepared (usually inadequately heated) canned foods are prone to contamination. The bacterium can produce a potent neurotoxin (a poison that acts upon the nervous system) that can paralyze and even kill a person who eats the contaminated food.
As well, Clostridium botulinum has the ability to form an environmentally resistant protective structure called a spore. The spore form of the organism can persist in a dormant state for very long periods of time. When conditions are more favorable for growth, resuscitation and toxin production can resume.
Following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the U.S. government moved to strengthen the country's defense against bioterrorism . This initiative culminated in the signing into law, on June 12, 2002, of the Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act of 2002 (the Bioterrorism Act). The act authorized the Secretary of Health and Human Services to protect the nation's food supply. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA ) is the lead agency in initiating the protective measures.
The U.S. measures are aimed at providing a system of accountability. For example, all businesses or growers who sell food for consumption in the U.S. must register with the government. As well, these firms will be required to maintain records of their food handling and processing activities. In the event of a deliberate contamination, this information would allow the source of the contamination to be traced.
The surveillance of food also must include inspection of food entering the country. This involves the manual inspection of foods arriving by air, sea, rail, and surface routes. Inspections typically consist of the visual examination of foods, although the use of portable devices that detect microorganisms or their products is being used experimentally. Other such devices are in the laboratory stage of testing, and have produced accurate results in laboratory settings.
Widespread alerts are often quickly recognized, and contaminated food sources are removed from the food supply, usually before many people will have consumed the contaminated food. Consumer vigilance is an additional important measure to protect the food supply. For example, even if raw produce has been doused with a poison or an infectious microorganism, careful washing will usually remove the threat. Canned foods that are damaged or swollen should be identified and discarded.
see also Aflatoxin; Bacteria, growth and reproduction; Bioterrorism; Botulinum toxin; Food poisoning; Pathogens; Spores; Toxins.