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February 28, 2008

Importing Uncertainty

As the GIO team attempts to parse the Security and Society focus area into evermore digestible chunks, we are learning that the need for security affects just about every single aspect of our lives. Some we think about often. Some we take for granted. And some only concern us when they hit the headlines. Like this story about securing our food and drug supply.

This particular story is about the production of an esoteric specialty drug called heparin, used as an anti-coagulant during surgical procedures. It’s made from the intestines of pigs, which are farmed throughout the world, by an endless network of micro-producers (otherwise known as independent farmers), none of whom are regulated, most of whom are not even registered with any government.

Because of a recent outbreak of severe reactions to the drug, food and drug regulators are busy trying to trace the supply chain backwards to discover where in the convoluted process a contaminant might have been introduced. The search has led them to China, where they have encountered the impossibly difficult task of investigating hundreds of mom-and-pop pig operations throughout the countryside.

The story is emblematic of how complex and unmanageable supply chains for all manner of products have become. No longer do we buy our goods from the local trades people. Rather we buy our bananas from Costa Rica, our coffee from Africa, and our tangerines from Argentina. Pharmaceuticals are engineered using ingredients from multiple continents and dozens of suppliers. And manufactured goods can sometimes touch four different continents before they arrive at your door. The average consumer has no idea how many different parties contributed to the production of their consumables. And the further we get from the raw ingredients, the more variables get introduced along the way.

Trying to secure supply chains this complex is not for the faint of heart. An un-integrated mosaic of local regulatory bodies is, in theory, overseeing many of these processes. But in truth, there is simply not enough manpower in the world to effectively secure the billions of products on the move around the globe every day. And should it even be the government’s responsibility to police this commercial activity anyway?

Some might argue that shoddy business practices have their own consequences. And certainly companies that have been outed in the press for endangering consumers have been punished by the market before. But how many of them have gotten away with it?

This is going to be one of the toughest questions the GIO will put to its participants this year. Obviously, a market full of terrified consumers is not good for anyone. So can the private sector work more closely with government organizations to ensure the security of supply chains? The ultimate goal is a confident consumer that is willing to spend without trepidation. Because consumers shouldn’t be burdened with the task of discerning which products on the supermarket shelves could be harmful. 

February 28, 2008 in Security and Society | Permalink

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