Corporate food safety and defense managers have their hands full already, assuring that the food products leaving the processing plants for which they are responsible meet all of the safe food regulations, appropriate to the nation in which they are produced and the nation(s) for which the products are destined. The last thing any of these people need is to be heaped with another responsibility. Yes, bioterrorism threats are real, but many would argue unlikely, since to date beyond the 2001 anthrax attack, which did not target the food supply, no bioterrorism attack has ever been directed at the food industry. True, but this is a very different world and many things have changed, including the enemy both in motivations and capabilities. Given that alone, it is perhaps time for food safety and defense managers to reexamine the possibilities and start thinking about ways to better protect both the safety of the food products produced and the brand that is served by them.

As food safety and defense managers adjust to the new world realities, two items bear consideration for the lessons they can provide. First to consider are the revelations inherent to the public release of what are called “The ISIS Files.”[1] These documents, which were taken by an ISIS defector and surrendered to U.S. authorities, are now available to the public through the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point.[2] The documents, which have been translated from Arabic, analyzed and authenticated by the military number in the thousands, giving a surprising detailed inside view of how ISIS recruits and the type of people that are attracted to joining the group. The take-away from the analysis is that all preconceived notions about ISIS recruits should be immediately discarded.[3] The vast majority of the recruits don’t seek martyrdom. They range in age from young to older adults. Many of the male recruits are married with children, and they are more educated than one might expect, many even having college educations. Most problematic of all, the recruits come from countries around the world.

So what does this mean to the food industry? What it means is ISIS recruits look like, act like the very kinds of people we encounter every day: just like you and your coworkers! ISIS wants to target all of the critical infrastructures in the U.S. and around the world, the food production and processing system being one of them. In order to do it effectively, ISIS has to put people on the inside that can destroy the critical infrastructure, in part by knowing where the weaknesses lie.

The second item to consider are the Brussels, Belgium attacks on March 22, 2016. There are many important lessons here for the food production and processing industries. Law enforcement officials from many nations, including the U.S., have carefully analyzed the events and see many troubling aspects, including the ability of ISIS to conduct relatively “complex operations” in Europe. What does that term “complex operations” mean and why would that be important to the food industries to consider? “Complex operations” is law enforcement and military speak for an operation that consists of multiple phases and elements, including some level of tactical planning and surveillance of vulnerable places.

So let’s bring this all back to the food industry. The critical infrastructures of the U.S. and Western nations as a whole are targets that ISIS would like to hit. That is undisputed. How they are going to try to make those attacks happen is an open question but will likely involve people that for now remain undetected in or around those critical infrastructures. Will they be successful? Much of the burden for detection and threat neutralization at your company depends upon your effectiveness in the food corporation. If effective in your efforts, people wanting to do harm can and will be detected. If ineffective, the safety and security of the food system will come into question. The simple truth is that security, whether designed to detect criminal activity, disgruntled employees or terrorists, largely begins and ends at your door step. Assume that people wishing to do your corporation harm and wishing to do harm to our nation may already be inside your food corporation or trying to enter. Then plan and, more importantly, act accordingly.

Robert A. Norton, Ph.D., is a professor at Auburn University and Chair of the Food Systems Institute, Biosecurity and Food Defense Working Group. A long-time consultant to federal and state law enforcement agencies, the Department of Defense and industry, he specializes in intelligence analysis, weapons of mass destruction defense and national security. For more information on the topic or for more detailed discussions about specific security related needs, he can be reached at or by phone at 334.844.7562.