Food as a Weapon – Re-Examining a Past Presentation at MSU by Col. Gary Vroegindewey

Written by: John Spink

Primary Source: Food Fraud Initiative

bomb on plate“Food as a Weapon” is a pretty strong statement.  We consumers have such a personal relationship with food that we constantly feel vulnerable.  With the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) draft rulemaking under public review, it is a good time to look back and gain some insight on our “Food Protection” roots.  Food Safety and Food Defense are two distinct concepts that require very different countermeasures and types of focus.  Reviewing the early direction of Food Defense is important. I’m re-examining this 2004 presentation by Col. Vroegindewy, who was in charge of Food Protection for the US Department of Defense at the time.

Gary and I have stayed in touch over the years.  I was reminded of his presentation and my summary just last Friday when we were both attending the MSU Master of Science in Food Safety Advisory Committee meetings.  With the FSMA open request for public comments and open meeting on February 20th, Food Protection is top of mind and Food Defense is as relevant as ever.  His presentation back in 2004 hinted at Food Fraud as a third Food Protection discipline. We as researchers need to continue to review the threat and participate in the public debate.  Stay informed and engaged as these laws, regulations, standards and concepts are evolving.   JWS.


“Food as a Weapon”

Summary of the Col Gary Vroegindewey (Assistant Chief, Veterinary Corps, US Army – responsible for all Food Safety for all Armed Services) lecture (12/4/2004) at the National Food Safety & Toxicology Center at Michigan State University.

[Note 2014: the term “Food Security” was later adapted to “Food Defense.”  To avoid confusion here, the term Food Security has been changed to Food Defense]


Col Gary Vroegindewey — responsible for all Food Safety for all Armed Services — discussed “Food as a Weapon” at Michigan State on December 4, 2004.  He covered a range of food-borne illness military “operational effects”, as well as the domestic threat and impact of economic scares by terrorists.  While Food Safety deals with the protection of the wholesomeness of the food, [Food Defense] deals with the processes & procedures used to prevent accidental or purposeful contamination.  The military’s specific focus is on “access points” — mainly defined as where food is being prepared by a few for many — and implementing processes and procedures to increase the safety of the food to/ from/ through these access points.  The Military Food Safety team is also very focused on “consumer confidence” regarding Food Safety – removing real and perceived stress about the food supply, and meal-time, is a key focus.  Packaging is seen to hold a very critical role in the Military Food Safety process.


The “Operational Effects” of food-borne illness were witnessed by the Soviet Army in Afghanistan, where 76% of their troops were hospitalized for some form of “bad bug” and at any one time up to 25% of the active troops were incapacitated due to food-borne illness.  Domestically, the impact of accidental and intentional food-borne contamination has had broad impacts: 245,000 people sick from one tanker truck of accidentally contaminated ice cream pre-mix, and 700 people sick from an “Oregon Salmonella” poisoning by a religious cult (intentional contamination identified one-year later from an informant).

Bin Laden’s terrorist network has espoused its intent to inflict economic terrorism.  Bin Laden has discussed the economic effectiveness of the 9/11 attacks, where every $1 spent on the attack cost the US $100M in new Homeland Security spending.  Attacks, or even threats, can inflict a massive economic impact.  A “Foot & Mouth Disease” scare caused a $50M loss in the futures market in one afternoon.  The “Chilean Grape Cyanide” scare (1980) cost $300M and bankrupted 100 shippers and grocers.  A tampering threat e-mailed to a baby food distributor in Brazil (containing specific information on threat and tamper method) led to all product being recalled for the entire country (costs not available).

As with domestic food safety, the Military follows HACCP (”hah-sip”) procedures: a process to identify risks, assess options, choose solutions, implement, and then begin the review process again.  [Note: this is consistent with the current FSMA focus on “preventatives controls” for Food Safety and Food Fraud.]

The Colonel talked at length about the psychological aspects of “Food as a Weapon” and the importance of consumer confidence.  While he talked in detail about the impact of foodborne illness and attacks, he emphasized that meal-time is a psychologically important time for the war fighters.  Beyond nutrition, meal-time should be a relaxing and enjoyable time for them.  Worrying about food would be an additional stressor in an already stressful situation.  This focus on the psychological aspects of the impact of Food Protection carries over to the state-side consumers.  While we have different challenges (we don’t have to package product to be stored for an indefinite period in a sealed shipping container at the arctic circle or the equator), we do have a responsibility to our customers.  The full range of Food Protection – Food Quality, Food Safety, Food Fraud, and Food Defense – needs to continue to focus on building and maintaining consumer confidence.

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John Spink
Dr. Spink has been focused on product fraud since the Michigan State University’s Food Safety Program and the School of Packaging began research on the topic in 2006. This work expanded to the behavioral sciences and criminology and led to the establishment of the Anti-Counterfeiting and Product Protection Initiative in 2008. In 2009 the work shifted to the School of Criminal Justice where the Initiative evolved into a Program.