Plans to deal with widespread contamination of the UK food supply caused by a terrorist attack have been discussed by industry, food safety and security officials amid concerns at the terror threat facing the country, BeverageDaily.com can reveal.
The meeting, called by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) last Thursday and the first of its kind in recent years, discussed the fallout from wide scale contamination of a range of foodstuffs, following a deliberate attack.
Delegates representing retail, manufacturing, enforcement and security services, worked on ways to reduce the risk of an attack and communicate effectively to control contamination.
Concerns over the terror threat posed by al-Qaeda and its associates to the UK have deepened in the last week, following stark warnings from government officials and ministers. Security services knew of around 30 plots to attack the UK, domestic security arm MI5 said on Friday.
An attack on the UK food supply could cause mass panic and illness, and potentially cost the food and drink industry millions of pounds.
An industry source present at the FSA meeting told BeverageDaily.com: "In the past the relationship between the food industry and the security services has not been very close. The thinking now is that we have to have this dialogue."
It is understood there is no specific threat to the UK food supply at present.
"It is about making people aware that if information of a threat exists then this needs to be communicated effectively. In the event of contamination, we would have to tell people very quickly and very precisely what they needed to do."
The FSA intends to use Thursday's meeting, organised jointly by Leatherhead Food International, to develop a "portfolio of good practice guidance" to both prevent and respond to a food terror attack.
"It is hoped that further, similar exercises and workshops will take place, involving a wider range of stakeholders," the agency said in a statement. It refused to comment on the scale of threat facing the food industry.
An attack would be very difficult to achieve, according to Dr Keith Neal, an expert on bioterrorism and part-time government advisor from the University of Nottingham.
"You've got to get a very harmful poison and you've got to be able to distribute it. There's various nasty chemicals, but to actually do this on mass is really very difficult because most poisons are bitter, and we have evolved to spit bitter things out," Neal told BeverageDaily.com.
Other problems include the need for heat-stable toxins, the potential for chemicals to be washed off food before it is eaten, and the potential for contamination to be discovered quickly and dealt with via batch recalls.
"Bioterrorism is a weapon of mass hysteria. The idea that you can kill people on a mass scale with bioterrorism is rather silly."
Rigorous safety and quality checks throughout the food supply chain may also make an attack difficult to achieve on a wide scale. "We do have a very robust network here. It's difficult to conceive of them being able to do it on that scale," said an industry delegate from the FSA meeting.