Britain is taking the threat of a bioterrorist attack against itsfood supply seriously and is ready to respond very quickly, asenior 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 policyof Britain's Food Standards Agency (FSA), told Reuters. "There are intelligence evaluations...as to whether the threat ismore likely or less likely from one week to the next, and we getthat sort of information," he added. "The important thing is that we are ready to deal with any issuethat comes up, that we have thought about it, that we've gotarrangements in place and that we are ready to move very quickly ifthere are any signs there is a problem developing."
Bell, visiting Rome to meet Italian health officials on foodsafety issues, said British authorities were concerned over therisks of widespread contamination of the food supply after theSeptember 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 primesuspect 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 maybe through animal disease. It may be that some group would want tocontaminate the food supply in some other way," he added."One wouldexpect that if people were wanting to do this, that they would aimto do it in a way that would spread contamination as widely aspossible. And that to some extent does limit the possibilities, andwe are aware of that."
Food safety officials say that certain animal diseases such asfoot-and-mouth disease and classical swine fever could be easilyintroduced into a country, and devastate itsagriculture.Foot-and-mouth could be introduced in a market byputting infected tissue into an animal's mouth.
Bell distinguished between foot-and-mouth disease, which has nosignificant impact on human health, and other potential means ofcontaminating the food supply that could kill people.
The British government this week expressed hopes that adevastating eight-month-old outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease wasover, as there had been no new cases for over five weeks.
Nearly four million animals have been killed on more than 2,000farms during efforts to control the outbreak which did severedamage to Britain's rural economy.
Last month Chief Veterinary Officer Jim Scudamore said thenational outbreak had been traced back to just 16 sheep on a farmin the northeast of England. Investigations into the origins of thedisease on this farm are continuing.
Bell said the FSA, a non-ministerial government department, wasin close contact with the British food industry and othergovernment departments to increase preparedness against attack.
It is not recommending more food inspectors, Bell said."One canalways talk about increasing the amount of inspection that goes on,but ultimately, unless you've got half the population doing theinspection, you can never actually say that that is sufficient,"Bell said. "We need to make sure everybody is vigilant," he added.The FSA, setup in April 2000 to respond to a loss of public confidence ingovernment handling of food safety, has 600 staff engaged inassessing risks and advising the government on policy.