Is the ag industry ready for a test?

The dairy food system is vulnerable to adulteration from an adversary bent on assaulting it. It's important for those involved to become knowledgeable and take actions to prepare and prevent.

Imagine a scenario, where one person or group, attempts to strike fear and doubt in the minds of consumers by revealing plans to contaminate the milk supply at a large, unnamed, processing plant. 

Just the threat of such a strike could potentially have disastrous consequences for the dairy industry. It's likely that milk sales would tumble, causing prices paid to farmers to drop like a thermometer during a polar vortex. Additionally, many costs would be incurred in attempts to find out if and how the milk supply had been tampered with, and to catch the perpetrator(s). 

The plan, or threat of it, made on social media, would have the internet buzzing with activity, some against dairy, and some for it, with many fearful about consuming products. Parents would tell their children that milk wasn't safe to drink and redirect them to a "safer" beverage, like soda. 

If the threat of such a plan was made, the damage has already been afflicted. Dairy products may be recalled, pulled from shelves and dumped. People who purchased dairy products would get it out of their refrigerators as quickly as possible. The disruption in dairy would be horrendous, even after all the losses, until the truth was firmly established. Perceptions and doubts would remain, impacting sales long-term. 

Why an individual or group would do such a thing is beyond me. It's foul-hearted and evil-spirited, but we live in a day and age when in fact people do desire to strike terror, or sabotage a company and simply want to profit from the results. Hopefully it never happens, but what if it does? 

That's why a group met together in Indianapolis in April, 2019, under the leadership of the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy and sponsored with dairy checkoff funds. We met to talk about the potential for a threat to dairy from and intelligent adversary, intent on attacking dairy products. The food system is complex as well as global, resulting in vulnerabilities. Protecting the food supply helps to ensure its integrity, but zero risk is not possible. 

During this time, we executed a drill to explore hoe to respond to a crisis by various segments of the industry. Farmers, the cooperatives, processors, marketers and dairy promotion groups were all represented, each responding to a mock threat. The reality is that any threat, real or perceived, would have a very disruptive effect to an entire industry that deals in fresh product. 

Threats are also local to farms. Things can happen, such as a manure or chemical spill, death of an employee, weather-related disaster or other, that can cause major disruptions in operation, having an impact on your reputation and potentially legal consequences. Preparing ahead for such an event is wise. Your dairy checkoff organization is ready to help you develop a crisis plan for your farm and walk with your through those times. 

There are some lessons that I took away from the conference and the drill that was part of it: 

  1. Promote: Dairy promotion efforts are important. It's important to help consumers form positive opinions of dairy farming and products before any crisis occurs.
  2. Prepare: Prepare for potential crises before they appear because better judgement can be made then. Trying to make decisions when sleep is short, stress high and options few, may lead to flawed choices with lasting consequences. 
  3. Partner: Disgruntled employees are not to be ignored, they may be the ones who perpetrate such a crisis. Develop your employees as partners who have an inner stake in the outcome of the farm or business; who adopt your values. While you can't avoid all cases of someone leaving mad, work to understand and address grievances as much as possible. 
  4. Protect: Protect what you can protect. Farms are vulnerable because they are often always "open." Consider a lane gate or locking the door of the milkhouse after the night milking. If you use a camera system on-farm, installing one in the milkhouse may help if a claim is ever made about adulteration. 
  5. Provide: Give employees the authority to stop things if something seems amiss. It is a version of the assembly line worker who can stop it if the process is not correct. This can only take place in a business where there is a culture of communication and trust. Develop that culture through intentional communication and respect for their input. 

For all who depend on and promote the dairy industry, protecting it is something that's too important to neglect. Start by talking about the issue with others. If you're a dairy farmer, talk with your milk hauler about protecting the tank. Talk with your feed consultant about protecting feed. Talk with your veterinarian about protecting animal health. These conversations may be awkward at first (and a little ambiguous,) but the more you do it, the more specific actions you'll decide upon. If you're a member of a cooperative, talk with that organization about protecting the industry. 

Protecting the dairy industry is not the job of one, it's the job of all. Just as promotion's something in which each has a role in, all do as well in ensuring the future of a safe and wholesome food supply. For more information, contact your dairy checkoff organization or your Extension system. There are people who want to help you. 

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