Britain is taking the threat of a bioterrorist attack against its food supply seriously and is ready to respond very quickly, a senior food safety official said on Thursday.
"It's very important to take any threats like this seriously," Jon Bell, deputy chief executive and director of food safety policy of Britain's Food Standards Agency (FSA), told Reuters.
"There are intelligence evaluations...as to whether the threat is more likely or less likely from one week to the next, and we get that sort of information," he added.
"The important thing is that we are ready to deal with any issue that comes up, that we have thought about it, that we've got arrangements in place and that we are ready to move very quickly if there are any signs there is a problem developing."
Bell, visiting Rome to meet Italian health officials on food safety issues, said British authorities were concerned over the risks of widespread contamination of the food supply after the September 11 attacks against the United States.
Britain has joined ranks with the United States and aided U.S. bombing raids against Afghanistan, believed to shelter the prime suspect in the September 11 strikes, Osama bin Laden.
THREATS CAN COME FROM ALMOST ANY DIRECTION
"Threats can come from almost any direction," Bell said. "It may be through animal disease. It may be that some group would want to contaminate the food supply in some other way," he added."One would expect that if people were wanting to do this, that they would aim to do it in a way that would spread contamination as widely as possible. And that to some extent does limit the possibilities, and we are aware of that."
Food safety officials say that certain animal diseases such as foot-and-mouth disease and classical swine fever could be easily introduced into a country, and devastate its agriculture.Foot-and-mouth could be introduced in a market by putting infected tissue into an animal's mouth.
Bell distinguished between foot-and-mouth disease, which has no significant impact on human health, and other potential means of contaminating the food supply that could kill people.
The British government this week expressed hopes that a devastating eight-month-old outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease was over, as there had been no new cases for over five weeks.
Nearly four million animals have been killed on more than 2,000 farms during efforts to control the outbreak which did severe damage to Britain's rural economy.
Last month Chief Veterinary Officer Jim Scudamore said the national outbreak had been traced back to just 16 sheep on a farm in the northeast of England. Investigations into the origins of the disease on this farm are continuing.
Bell said the FSA, a non-ministerial government department, was in close contact with the British food industry and other government departments to increase preparedness against attack.
It is not recommending more food inspectors, Bell said."One can always talk about increasing the amount of inspection that goes on, but ultimately, unless you've got half the population doing the inspection, you can never actually say that that is sufficient," Bell said.
"We need to make sure everybody is vigilant," he added.The FSA, set up in April 2000 to respond to a loss of public confidence in government handling of food safety, has 600 staff engaged in assessing risks and advising the government on policy.