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2011-10-02

Ten Years On: From Anthrax to Food Safety

It is an axiom in military history that generals are always refighting the last war. In American history, the initial efforts in our wars are often unsuccessful because we have to unlearn those lessons and replace the people who cannot. On the civilian side, we re-fight political battles as well. We cite the Founding Fathers or Abraham Lincoln to defend our respective political viewpoints as though the issues they grappled with are identical with those of our day. The risk of engaging in this practice is that sometimes we reason from past events and trends and miss the novel developments in the present and the future.  


We are still assessing the impact of 9/11 and have not had the time and distance to consider how much it marks a change in thinking and perspective. One of my professors (of medieval history) once said that he preferred studying the Middle Ages because it was quieter—the dust had settled. My interests, however, were in modern history with all the attendant noise. I believe that our responses to 9/11 were in line with larger trends. The idea of imagining things that do not exist and that those probabilities can be quantified is a novel development. While there have been futures markets in commodities for many years (as well as their routine collapses), we now have a large number of people who are able to profit from looking at the information available to them and betting for or against future developments. Biosurveillance (and food defense) can benefit from those approaches. It comes down to tracking for and against the likelihood of future events or threats.


We failed to imagine the use of airplanes as bombs or mailing anthrax in envelopes as ways to attack our country. Those failures do not give us license to spend our scarce resources defending against every imaginable threat, however. We need to assess the risks against the investment necessary to guard against them. In some ways we can think about the next war (if I can stretch my initial point here) rather than refight the last. The means we use to do that require quantifying the probability of the threat. To spend billions on threats that have little likelihood of happening is not prudent, but spending millions may be a wise investment—particularly if those means also guard against ordinary threats that hurt many every day.


We have seen ordinary threats emerge on a routine basis--such as the current listeria outbreak we are responding to as of this writing. Yet, we still respond after the fact to such threats that sicken, hospitalize, and kill many of our citizens. The secondary use of data and the application of analytics that we have developed for other purposes seem to offer just such a response.  These approaches are still early, but the work in the larger trend of using data and quantitative tools to look at the present offers us a way to peer into the future. If we address the issues of food safety in this manner, I believe we address the issues of food defense.

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