Michael Robach is vice president of corporate food safety and regulatory affairs for Cargill. He works with 79 business units in 63 countries around the world.

Cargill’s pork production focus lies within the United States and Brazil. The company also works with pork production customers in the European Union and Asia.

Robach’s Food Safety Group includes an animal-health component that works on such things as foot-and-mouth disease, bovine spongiform encephalopathy and avian influenza.

Q: You talk about “defending the farm” — what does that mean?

A: It involves refocusing efforts around biosecurity and a new focus on food safety, especially as it relates to zoonotic diseases. Pork producers need to re-think their biosecurity protocols for logistics, feed, bedding, water and all of the people traffic, including commercial and worker traffic.

Q: What is the difference between a biosecurity threat and a security threat? What are the risks to U.S. pork producers?

A: These two issues run together. Biosecurity is about precluding the inclusion of bacteria, virus or another infectious agent. Security is about securing premises by using sign-in sheets, locks, gates, alarms and restricting people from entering farms. There’s always the danger of intentional contamination.

The risks are huge. We have a rather fickle global public that will react immediately and stop using a commodity. For instance, when officials discovered avian flu in Italy, poultry consumption dropped 70 percent. If we faced FMD in the United States, consumers would react immediately, and it would likely include reduced pork consumption. Importers would ban U.S. pork products, and with imports at current levels that loss would be dramatic.

Q: What are the security concerns surrounding pork?

A: Given the way in which U.S. producers ship grain and feed, and grow animals, there are many opportunities for open and exposed access to these commodities. Hogs could be contaminated through the feed supply or during transportation as the animals are hauled over public roads. We need to be on guard against potential threats.

Apart from a bacterial pathogen, FMD is the most likely threat. It’s an economically crippling disease both in production and consumer perception, even though it’s not transmitted to humans. FMD has the ability to halt export sales because importers wouldn’t risk bringing the disease into their countries, and consumers would be afraid to buy and eat fresh U.S. meat products.

Food is an emotional target; it’s not about blowing up a building. Agriculture is a critical infrastructure that is relatively unprotected. We have to look at the risks and vulnerability in order to put mechanisms in place that do a better job of protecting the U.S. grain, animal and meat supply.

Producers are doing a good job, but there’s always room for improvement. They should follow a process similar to Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points. Determine the operation’s weaknesses and where contamination can take place; then raise awareness among everyone within the operation to prevent it from happening.

Q: Are U.S. or international consumers more concerned about food safety?

A: With the furor around BSE, avian flu and FMD in other parts of world, consumers everywhere are concerned about food safety. For most people, it’s a fear of the unknown. That makes it important for companies and producers to be out front with information and to communicate effectively. We have to spell out the risk-management strategies that we have in place to prevent threats from entering the food system to build the confidence of domestic and international customers.

Managing perception is a big job that we have to approach in a systematic way. Sometimes it’s simply perception that will trigger a consumer response. The pork industry has to show that it has the ability to identify and segregate a diseased herd from the rest of the population quickly and effectively.

Pork executives need to talk proactively about the firewalls that we have in place — as individual companies and as an industry. We have to communicate to USDA, especially the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, Congress and the local press that we know what we’re doing, and how we’re protecting the food supply. We tend not to communicate these things until a problem surfaces, then we’re on the defensive. Instead, we need to show that we anticipate incidents and prepare for them; that we continuously supply safe food.

Q: What must U.S. pork producers do to better secure their businesses?

A: Integrated operators have the ability to secure their businesses more effectively than non-integrators. It’s important that all parts of the pork chain work together to maintain a secure pork industry.

I’m involved with a group called Safe Supply of Affordable Food Everywhere. Cargill, McDonald’s and the University of Minnesota started the group. We are working on the global supply chain to address food security issues. The World Organization for Animal Healt — OIE also is involved.

It integrates what people are doing in animal health and food safety and takes the next step -- to the farm, plant, distribution, retail, foodservice and consumer. Nestle, Wal-Mart, Yum! Brands among others are participating. Others like Sadia ( Brazil) and input suppliers like EcoLab, are working on risk-mitigation strategies.

Q: What does the U.S. pork industry have working in its favor?

A: The U.S. pork industry has done a good job of biosecurity. It’s been effective in production management and producing products that consumers want.

There are very few food-safety issues associated with pork. However, the industry has been too quiet in what it’s done and how it’s accomplished this progress, especially from a zoonotic disease standpoint. We need to talk about the good things we’ve done, such as the biosecurity protocols and disease surveillance programs we have in place from the farm to the end product.

It’s absolutely essential that we work together as an industry. If there’s a disease break somewhere, regardless if it’s a small producer or an integrated producer, it will impact the entire pork industry. There has never been a more important time to work together to show that we’re strategically aligned with universities, public entities and government agencies to deal with these issues.

Q: How do you see the U.S. pork industry in 5 or 10 years?

A: There will be major consumer expectations that the industry has a safe, secure supply chain. Industry will adapt to consumer trends and desires, with more niche products, including organic and antibiotic-free. There will be a definite movement and focus on the customer. If there is a market need, we’ll do what we have to do to fill it.

Q: What message would you leave with pork executives?

A: The issues surrounding food safety and security are things that we need to work on together. We have to be aligned as an industry and engage the public sector, including customers, consumers, universities and Congress. If one of us falters, it will impact all of us. We have to continue to develop and implement best practices as they relate to food security and food safety.