Creating a Food Defense and Response Plan in Complex Food Production Systems

M. Seeger1, T. Sellnow2 and E.L. Petrun3

1Wayne State University, Detroit, MI, United States, 2University of Central Florida, Orlando, FL, United States, 3University of Maryland, College Park, MD, United States


Food safety is a recurring technical and management challenge, which is further complicated by constantly evolving public perceptions. Currently, the food supply in the United States remains one of the safest in the world. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), however, estimates that 76 million people get sick, more than 300,000 are hospitalized, and 5,000 Americans die each year from foodborne illness (Mead et al., 2000). More than 200 known diseases are transmitted through food. The food supply is susceptible to both unintentional and intentional contamination by a wide range of other agents. Fortunately, there are only a handful of documented instances where the food supply has been intentionally adulterated, although the threat of such contamination is very real. The continued industrialization of food systems, including the development of long, complex supply chains and distribution channels, has complicated efforts to guarantee a safe food supply.

Efforts to understand crises in industrial systems draw heavily on the principles of complex systems theory or chaos theory (Perrow, 1984; Seeger et al., 2003). These approaches emphasize the dynamic and nonlinear nature of highly complex systems. As systems become centralized, increasingly complex and tightly coupled, the probability of unforeseen interactions increases. These interactions carry the potential to create a crisis, or what system theorists call bifurcation. In bifurcation, a system is fundamentally altered in some dramatic way. Thus, a system designed to distribute safe food may function to spread contamination.

Food Protection and Security. DOI:

© 2017 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

Although the modern food production system is very safe, it is increasingly efficient, dynamic, integrated, tightly coupled, and complex. Interestingly, the US food supply is exceedingly centralized, as food companies become larger, more vertically integrated, and fueled by added producers who provide escalating inputs to existing organizations. Today, food travels through agricultural production supply chains on both domestic and international farms, to orchards and ranches, through transportation, to processing in industrial settings, to distribution, into wholesale and retail outlets, and on to the consumer and storage. Modern food production is very susceptible to systemic breakdowns during any number of these steps. This extended chain of production, often expressed with the phrases “from farm to fork,” or “from seed to shelf,” inherently creates vulnerabilities. Industrial, mass production of food products and width of distribution has added to the complexity and increased the chances that an adverse event will be quite widespread.

Greater emphasis on efficiency and smaller profit margins may also serve to reduce slack resources and buffers that may have served to contain crises. The use of technology, such as automated production, while reducing some threats, has introduced others and further enhanced overall complexity. Finally, globalization of food production and distribution has added additional levels of intricacy and reduced levels of predictability. In the global food market, food is produced under a very wide range of regulatory, cultural and economic contexts. These features of the food production and distribution system are all illustrated in the cases presented here.

Insuring the safety and reliability of food production systems is a multistage process involving appropriate risk awareness, communication, mitigation resources, and appropriate response strategies. This chapter describes the difficulty of providing food defense within complex, globalized, and highly dynamic food production systems. The high reliability organization and mindfulness framework is proposed as a useful approach for managing and mitigating risks (Weick and Sutcliffe, 2007). The CDC’s Crisis and Emergency Risk Communication (CERC) crisis planning template is presented as a resource to help prepare for and respond to an event (Reynolds and Seeger, 2012).

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