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Research Spotlight: Food Supply Vulnerability Tool

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Development of a Quantitative Food Supply Vulnerability Tool Exploring Public Health Risks

The Food Safety Modernization Act requires that a vulnerability assessment of the food system be conducted, including biological, chemical, radiological or other risk assessments. Our goal is to develop a web-based food-processing vulnerability assessment tool for microbial attack agents, capable of providing quantitative estimates that directly measure risk and vulnerability using public-health based metrics. This tool should be generic in nature, enabling application to multiple food systems.



In a food attack scenario the greatest threat is from hazards that can persist through processing and cause high health burdens. Factors contributing to this are characteristics such as microbial response to temperature and other environmental conditions (e.g. heat, NaCl, filtration), as well as the pathogenicity of the hazards. Assessments usually focus on single food-hazard pairs, however optimal resilience to attack can be gained through consideration of a range of hazards with diverse characteristics. For example, spore- or toxin-forming pathogens may be more of a threat to processes including high heat, whereas pathogens that readily grow are more of a threat to systems with extended storage times. The system considers a pre-defined suite of attack agents in a single framework. The user controls the processing parameters but the assessment always includes the full set of hazards. The tool takes a processing system specified in terms of a set of processes, and estimates the exceedance distribution. The exceedance is the concentration of agent required to be added at each process stage to exceed the tolerance for the consequences of an attack (risk, cases of illness, or DALYs). This is done for each of the pre-defined agents. The most vulnerable step is the one requiring the lowest concentration of hazard.


The primary goal of the proposed work is to develop a web-based food supply chain vulnerability assessment tool for agents of concern, which provides quantitative estimates that directly measure risk and vulnerability using public-health based metrics. This tool will be generic in nature, enabling application to multiple food systems and enabling exploration of the impact of risk mitigation measures upon the vulnerability of the system. 

Next Steps

A prototype tool has been completed. Formal beta-testing of the tool will begin in January 2016. Beta-testers will be from the key user groups and stakeholders.


The result of this work will be a tool for both policy makers and the food industry to quantitatively explore vulnerability in directly comparable measures of public health risk. The results can be used directly to prioritize procedures to minimize the risks to public health from attacks on the food supply chain, enhancing the resiliency of the food supply chain.

Key Users

• Academic Community
• Food and Agriculture Industries
• Food and Drug Administration
• U.S. Department of Agriculture
• U.S. Department of Defense

 Project Time frame

• 2014-2016

Project Personnel

Emma Hartnett, Ph.D.
Risk Assessment of Biological Systems
Risk Sciences International, Inc.


This project is funded through the Food Protection and Defense Institute by the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate’s Office of University Programs through Award Number 2010-ST-061-FD0001.