Watching the Super Bowl has become an unofficial holiday in the United States, with untold amounts of planning and coordination for the big game occurring in the weeks and days leading up to the event.[1,2] On average, Americans tend to shell out $81.17 for their Super Bowl party-planning efforts.[3] But what if your party list included half a million people?[4] Our panelists responded to a series of questions about their experiences in the days, weeks, and months in advance of Super Bowl LIII. Here you will learn about the importance of the most basic concepts of developing trusted relationships, collaboration, planning, and information sharing. If you work in an area near where a large-scale event is coming soon, know that there is work going on behind the scenes like you can’t imagine. The invisible veil of public health protection is heavy, and it’s all around us.

Food Safety Magazine (FSM) convened an expert panel, moderated by Editorial Advisory Board member Jason Bashura, M.P.H., RS, senior manager, global food defense, PepsiCo, to address some of the more critical questions regarding the challenges of adequate prior planning for large-scale events. Participating panelists were Tom Beacorn, Food Emergency Response Network (FERN) coordinator, U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service (USDA-FSIS), Lenore Musick, executive director, administration, Georgia State University (GSU), and Venessa Sims, MEP, GA-CEM, director of emergency management, Georgia Department of Agriculture (GDA).

FSM: Please describe what your food safety-related responsibilities were prior to the day of the event. How did you plan ahead for what these would be?

Tom Beacorn: I serve as a senior staff officer for FERN at USDA-FSIS. FSIS’s mission is to protect public health by ensuring the safety of the nation’s commercial supply of meat, poultry, and processed egg products. One of my responsibilities is ensuring that FSIS-regulated products are safe to eat at special security events, which are national or international events that the Department of Homeland Security has deemed to be a potential target for terrorism or other criminal activity. A recent special security event was Super Bowl LIII, including several game-week events in Atlanta. FSIS played a significant role in testing meat, poultry, and egg products to ensure their safety for consumers.

Over the years, I’ve been involved in several food defense activities for a variety of high-interest events, such as the Republican and Democratic National Conventions in 2012 and 2016 and the presidential inaugurations in 2013 and 2017. When working these events, it’s essential to develop and maintain working relationships and effective lines of communications with partner federal agencies and other organizations. Working together as a food defense system, rather than as siloed agencies, enhances the collective awareness of potential hazards, further protecting the public.

A good example of this is my activities leading up to Super Bowl LIII. I developed working relationships with representatives of the NFL’s Super Bowl LIII planning committee, state public health officials, state agriculture officials, federal law enforcement agents, state emergency management officials, and the stadium’s catering staff. Additionally, I coordinated with various FSIS offices throughout the pre-event planning and the execution of our activities during the event. This included working with staff in FSIS’s Office of Investigation, Enforcement, and Audit (OIEA) and the Significant Incident Preparedness and Response Staff, who obtained the food samples we tested and helped communicate the coordination of the agency’s activities for the event. FSIS FERN conducted laboratory analysis of FSIS-regulated food products to prevent the outbreak of foodborne illnesses during the event.

Lenore Musick: For our dining halls, we developed a food safety plan for all units and coordinated with our vendors to ensure we were receiving safe product.

For catering, we didn’t have a vast network of people to pull information from about handling a large event like the Super Bowl. So we used our own knowledge from events like Teach for America, Boys & Girls Clubs, and Georgia State University’s homecoming. We fed thousands of people in a short amount of time, so that was a good amount of training. The largest difference was safety-related procedures. For prior events, we used normal food handling practices. But with the Super Bowl being a Tier 1 event, we had to anticipate daily visits from USDA and the health department. The key to success is pre-planning for large events to ensure there is plenty of equipment and personnel available to maintain food safety standards.

Venessa Sims: Georgia had finalized its Food Emergency Response Plan (FERP) in the past year (a multi-year planning process in and of itself). Just when we thought we had completed this multi-agency planning project, we realized that we had not fully encompassed special event planning into the document, and so we had to step back and punt, so to speak, to ensure we more completely encompassed interagency communications, sampling, and laboratory coordination for special events into the document. It was an excellent reminder that the planning process never ends and of the importance of including real-world events and responsibilities in the planning process.

As the director of emergency management and supporter of the Georgia Food and Feed Rapid Response Team (GA RRT), I reached out to the federal ESF [emergency support function] 11 coordinator, Andrew Wilson, who helped obtain planning documents from Super Bowl LII from his network. I was also made aware from our public health partners of a City of Minneapolis webinar by Daniel Huff, environmental health director, Minnesota Public Health Department, where he shared his knowledge and expertise on the subject. I later met him when we copresented at our RRT National Conference in Austin, TX, and he was a plethora of knowledge and real-world planning considerations. Having these planning items helped direct our efforts and helped provide a foundation for our work.

We decided fairly early on that we would incorporate a sampling effort into our food defense operations. Little did I know that this would be a massive undertaking. The coordination of testing efforts for nontraditional threat agents beyond the theoretical planning efforts in the FERP took thoughtful planning and interagency coordination. It included a tour of the Russell Research Center, a USDA-FSIS FERN lab in Athens, GA, to further understand their processes and methodologies, and internal meetings with our two food laboratories within GDA.

The logistical efforts for hot food sampling were more robustly coordinated and created by our operations section chief, Krissa Jones. GDA had a component of the sampling operations during the Super Bowl along with USDA-FSIS. An organizational chart was developed to break the Super Bowl foodservice sites into different zones. GDA had Centennial Olympic Park, and GSU and USDA-FSIS had the Georgia World Congress Center (GWCC), Mercedes-Benz Stadium (MBS), and State Farm Arena. This operational period had a successfully developed and validated plan that included logistical preparations and color-coded coolers. I cannot say enough about Krissa Jones and Chad McCord for their collective effort in developing and implementing this strategy. Though our food safety staff samples on a regular basis, the incorporation of sampling hot food and a validated template was a highlighted success of Super Bowl LIII.

As ESF 11 coordinator in Georgia, I sent a formal request for assistance to the FDA [Food and Drug Administration] and USDA-FSIS FERN leads to support this sampling effort for Super Bowl LIII. I am highlighting this item because special event planning does include formal processes to coordinate response.

The sampling coordination of both GDA and USDA-FSIS took several months of preparation and coordination. There were numerous emails, conference calls, and meetings that took place to prepare for this effort. There were facility site walk-throughs by command and operational staff to familiarize themselves with the locations in advance of the sampling operations. There were discussions regarding delivery methods and implementation to include courier routes with increased traffic and pedestrian foot traffic implications, and road closures as we got closer to game day. There were also discussions during safety briefings about protecting the integrity of the samples in large crowds. GDA sent their samples to GDA labs and USDA-FSIS utilized their labs and the FERN network. Though I have taught about FERN in traceback courses and discussed it at meetings and conferences, as unified commander, it was impressive to see this national asset in action and the timeliness of these capabilities. The FDA Southeast Food and Feed Lab also took part in the response efforts.

This is a quote I utilized in information sharing at the close of the event that summarizes this effort: “A special thanks for the work of our sampling teams and laboratories both here in Georgia and across the nation! This event has highlighted the great work and efforts of the FERN network and the services they provide. I have been impressed to see it all play out and am grateful for this wonderful asset and our own GDA labs, who are also members. We have been able to build our networks and our capabilities in Georgia during Super Bowl LIII all while protecting public health!”

FSM: What logistics were required to carry out these responsibilities? Did you have to allocate more/different personnel/resources to accomplish these tasks?

TB: Internal coordination between FSIS offices is an essential component of success during events such as the Super Bowl. An increase in total FSIS personnel is not necessary per se; however, there may be a need for redistribution of our trained personnel to prepare for and work the event.

LM: For our dining halls, we didn’t really need anything extra; we just had to increase awareness among the staff.

For catering, we added cooler spaces and about 25–30 more people to our team for 2 weeks. The luxury of working in this department is that we can pull assistance from other units. We acquired more vehicles and food-holding equipment. We could only use certain vendors, so we planned daily with our sales reps on items we needed. Our administrative team coordinated with the city on times, pickups, and allergies, and fielded tons of calls throughout the day.

VS: I cannot stress [enough] the importance of logistical planning for this type of event. Not only was it recommended by Chief Woody of the Atlanta Police Department [APD] that I join the Super Bowl Logistics Committee, [but] our internal logistical planning efforts were quite robust as well. Being able to see the larger picture of the overall logistical response helped us in our preparedness endeavors. It also gave us knowledge to prepare for our specified operations. The logistical need for our food defense efforts was detailed and comprehensive. It included operational personnel, vehicles, supplies, PPE [personal protective equipment], hand warmers, sampling supplies, coolers, carts to transport supplies in the field, clipboards, and travel routes, to name a few.

A common thought I like to share when providing National Incident Management System/Incident Command System (NIMS/ICS) trainings is that the logistics are often an afterthought. Logistics is the often less recognized KEY to any response. If you don’t have the people, equipment, and/or supplies on hand to do the job, you don’t have an operation. You cannot conduct the work that must be done because you don’t have the tools to do the job. As we follow the NIMS/ICS structure, logistics is a critical component, and more focus should be given to this key management paradigm to be successful in our planning and operational response activities. NIMS/ICS is like a puzzle: You need all the pieces to get to and appreciate the full picture that you are trying to develop and create.

FSM: Were you prepared for all contingencies on the day of the event? Did you encounter any issues that you weren’t expecting?

TB: FSIS takes its role in these special events seriously and is fully prepared. FSIS surveils and reports the laboratory results for the foods intended for consumption during the big event prior to the event itself. The pre-event sampling, testing, and data reporting are intended to demonstrate the seriousness of an intentional food adulteration and harden the target by having a demonstrable presence of a food defense assessment/sampling/testing/reporting plan associated with each event that FSIS is involved in. These efforts also act as a deterrent for anyone who may consider tampering with the food supply at events.

As a group of federal and state partners, we were prepared, and fortunately no unforeseen circumstances arose during Super Bowl LIII. FSIS was on standby status, prepared to assist the local public health authority and GDA’s RRT, should a food sample need an expedited laboratory analysis for any reason.

LM: For our dining halls, we were prepared for all contingencies that could or would arise. We discussed the ultimate worst-case scenario and developed a hypothetical plan for that. Anything else would not be a problem for us to deal with.

For catering, we weren’t always prepared for changes, but we were always able to adjust and accommodate the customers on short notice. On the front end, the customers never noticed, but we had some growing pains. We’d come in with changes to guest counts, filling personnel gaps, handling daily product being shipped in, and still working on a busy university campus.

VS: I can tell you even though we had prepared for weather conditions and the National Weather Service was involved, we weren’t expecting a 35-county shutdown [due to the federal government shutdown] of local and state offices to impact us during the Super Bowl. Though many staff were working remotely, to include myself, this shutdown did not impact an effective and timely food illness complaint investigation that involved law enforcement officers and was successfully addressed due to training efforts. This hard work paid off and contributed to timely and effective information sharing and operational coordination activities.

This investigation was successfully concluded on the day it began. It was a coordinated effort led by ESF Branch Director Wendy Smith and myself, which included local and state epidemiologists, FBI, APD, USDA-FSIS OIEA staff, laboratory staff, and other key GA RRT partners. A big thanks to Ken Cash, USDA-FSIS, for working with the law enforcement community to conduct interviews and surveillance and bring a timely conclusion that indicated there was no nefarious activity involved in the foodborne illness investigation. Previous on-site walk-through activities were critical aspects of a timely investigation resolution and should be included as best practices in future event planning.

We weren’t prepared for the impacts of a federal government shutdown. Credentialing efforts have to be completed early, and it is a clearly stated vetting process. Defining team members was done well in advance; however, several key staff were impacted by the federal government shutdown, and this impacted our resource count and access to certain areas, and the credentialing deadline had passed. I learned we are flexible in emergency management, if nothing else; however, this did provide a direct hit to our resources in certain areas. The credentialed staff stepped up, and I was proud of their efforts. I am grateful too for the numerous federal staffers across the Super Bowl LIII footprint who dedicated their time to doing their jobs to support this event and provide for the safety of those in attendance.

FSM: How would you advise others who need to prepare for an event of this size?

TB: Planning ahead, well in advance, is key to a successful outcome. Super Bowl planning begins 11 months prior to game day. That’s a lot of time to build those professional relationships with partner government agencies, with whom you’ll be working. It’s essential to have a well-defined role, know when and where you need to be involved and integrated into the preparedness efforts and the execution of your roles. The last thing anyone wants to do is to get in the way of other event safety efforts. Knowing your role, communicating that role, preparing for its execution, and getting out of the way of others are crucial.

LM: For our dining halls, get guaranteed numbers.

For catering, plan as far in advance as possible. Unless you’ve done the Olympics or a prior Super Bowl, you’re going to struggle. It’s not simple catering. There are a lot of security clearance needs and moving parts. Have a strong leadership team—that really helped us. Our employees were tired, but they were able to come in daily and execute parties, and they didn’t have our levels of stress. The health department will be your best friend; embrace it and just stay on your team in all areas.

VS: Devise a team of subject-matter experts who have a hand in your operational objectives and meet early and often!

Take a fresh look at your FERP and make sure it addresses special event and food defense planning considerations.

Develop a collectively approved Concept of Operations (ConOps).

Engage and test your lab systems in a surge event; there is a lot of coordination on the food sampling and laboratory front. It is critical that the UC [unified command] gets experience in these operations and how surge sampling, a positive sample, or a complaint investigation can impact your sampling operations and coordination efforts that may differ from normal routine regulatory sampling efforts.

Train together: Crawl, walk, run! In that order (take a fresh look at your plans, policies and procedures, and contact lists; talk through these processes and look for gaps and areas of improvement; and drill and/or physically go through these actions to further identify gaps and areas of improvement).

Conduct facility site walk-throughs in advance of the operational period, and again as you get closer to go time, consider the following: Assess how the environment may have changed—operational flow and access is very different closer to game day and even during the 10-day operational period compared to normal operations; define exactly how you are going to gain access to ingress/egress sites and foodservice site locations.

Document, document, document and then share. It is one thing for the unified command to know what the expectations and plans are; it is another thing altogether for the operational staff to know.

Include safety briefings and have a safety officer. Safety considerations and preparing for a winter weather operation can be entirely different than post-hurricane operations.

Don’t forget the importance of the logistical elements of a response; it can make or break you.

As ag entities, get to know your FBI WMD [weapons of mass destruction] coordinator and develop relationships with your fusion center. Fusion centers are state-owned and -operated centers that serve as focal points in states and major urban areas for the receipt, analysis, gathering, and sharing of threat-related information between state, local, tribal and territorial, federal, and private sector partners.

Get to know the all-hazards command staff for the event; food defense UC was at the state operations center with these staff members, and it helped broaden the knowledge of these capabilities and the applicability to the overall response. It also allowed us to share intel and/or provide information sharing that may impact our operational activities in the field in a timely manner to staff.

FSM: What would you change if you had it to do over again?

TB: Very little. There was so much preparation in terms of groundwork a year or two ahead of Super Bowl LIII with GDA and their RRT, which made this event run smoothly. The roles were well-defined and understood by all of the federal and local government agencies involved.

LM: For our dining halls, nothing really; we are used to adapting to changing business needs.

For catering, the space we first planned to use wasn’t sufficient to accommodate our team. We’d get our crews together further in advance. We lucked out a lot with staffing, but I believe the headaches could’ve been avoided if we had consistent teams. Also, I would reach out to the caterer that provided services to the Super Bowl the previous year and ask them what they did and what they would change.

VS: Start our planning efforts even earlier than a year in advance. It would have been helpful if food safety and food defense staffers could have participated in the site visits of other states’ Super Bowl preparations to see how they incorporated their planning efforts and be able to discuss more one-on-one. All other players participated and had this time; however, the food component was overlooked and is such an integral part of the overall Super Bowl experience.

Additionally, I would have engaged with representatives of MBS sooner in our planning efforts. We touched the other site contacts, but having engaged dialogue on the food defense needs and requirements with MBS would have benefited both sides by occurring sooner than later in the planning timeline.

FSM: How important were your relationships with the other groups involved (foodservice, agencies, industry) to the success of the event from a food safety perspective?

TB: Building trust is key in a working relationship. Without trust between the many organizations involved in an event such as this, very little can be accomplished smoothly, if at all. All of the time invested well in advance of Super Bowl LIII was well worth the investment, as evident by the success achieved toward protecting the food supply intended for tens of thousands of people.

LM: For our dining halls, it was extremely important. There were some areas we didn’t typically deal with that they were able to advise us on. For example, we typically keep our chemicals separated from food but not always locked up. USDA was able to give us insight into why it’s extremely important to keep them locked up.

For catering, “important” is an understatement. Everyone was dealing with the same requirements. Vendors in Atlanta needed to deliver our food first because we needed to break the seal. Vendors had to accommodate our food needs and those of hotels in the area catering to the teams and others involved with the event. So everyone was extremely busy and stretched thin to pull off such a feat. USDA and health department visits were extremely educational, and they were more than happy to walk us through the process for each visit. Building positive relationships with vendors around the city helped make the event successful.

VS: Relationships are everything, especially in food defense. It impacts information sharing, timeliness of intel and information sharing, and response capabilities. I am proud and grateful for the relationships and training efforts we have in Georgia. The successful integration of food defense activities and operational capabilities during Super Bowl LIII was largely [due] in part to the relationships we have with Georgia Emergency Management and Homeland Security, City of Atlanta, Atlanta-Fulton County Emergency Management Agency, GA RRT members, GWCC, and industry reps. I will say that these relationships were validated and strengthened during this special event.

I am extremely grateful to our partners at Fulton County Board of Health, USDA-FSIS, and FERN; without their support and coordination with GDA, this food defense operation would not have been possible.

Our engagement with our law enforcement family is strong in Georgia. These partnerships and open support of agriculture and food defense make our state and nation safer and better prepared to respond and recover. We routinely communicate, plan, and train together. We have contacts in place at the local, state, and federal levels that allow for swift and timely communications on blue-sky days and during a response. I encourage others to make these connections now to better prepare your communities.

FSM: What is your favorite success story or memory that impacted you, professionally, from the event?

TB: I cannot emphasize enough how valuable it is to have a coordinated working relationship between multiple agencies during a high-profile event attended by a large audience. The many agencies present have varying responsibilities, but the overall goal is safety. In our case, FSIS and partners provided a level of confidence addressing the food defense concerns throughout the Super Bowl LIII game week.

LM: For our dining halls, honestly, I think events like this really show how much people are capable of.

For catering, completing the event and being asked to cater the upcoming Final Four is something we’re extremely proud of and honored to be considered for. Also, seeing team members shine during the event by taking on leadership roles. Our team made this event successful. The Atlanta police gave our core team challenge coins to show their appreciation, as well. This gesture made our team proud.

VS: Having Ria Akins, City of Atlanta director of emergency preparedness, and Captain Fred Watson, APD, share with me on game day that they were grateful to have GDA as a part of the team and that having food defense incorporated into the planning and operational response was a success and should be replicated in future events. As food defense unified commander, I was thrilled to hear this news and grateful to be recognized for the efforts of our amazing food defense team! I am so thankful for our partnerships! Professionally, this is one of the proudest moments in my career to have our food defense actions be accepted, valued, and validated all while protecting the public health of the citizens and making our state better prepared. Effective food defense planning made a difference both in successful event operations and in the conduct of investigations.    

We would like to thank all the panelists for their insightful comments and engaging discussion.

An additional thank-you is extended to Venessa Sims for her spirited leadership in connecting the dots and helping recruit the other contributors for this piece.