September 14, 2005 | By: Terri McLean
LEXINGTON, Ky.

The thought of someone sneaking onto a milk tanker and pouring a toxin into its contents might seem like something right out of a suspense novel. But since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, such a scenario may be closer to fact than fiction.

“After 9/11, terrorism became a lot more heightened risk in the dairy industry,” said Chris Thompson, milk coordinator for the University of Kentucky Division of Regulatory Services. “While the dairy industry is well known for its safety and security, we had to come to terms with the fact that intentional tampering could occur.”

Just how much of a possibility is the subject of much debate. But even the slightest threat of a terrorist attack on one of the nation’s most important bulk food supplies warrants a proactive stance, Thompson said.

“Complacency is not good,” he said. “Making the dairy industry more safe and secure is always at the top of the list for anyone involved, whether it’s the farmer or the grocer who carries the dairy products.”

Thompson apparently is not alone in his sentiments. The federal government recently awarded $1.5 million in homeland security funds to a collaborative group from UK, University of Louisville, Western Kentucky University and the Kentucky dairy industry to develop a prototype monitoring system that will ensure the security of milk at one of its most vulnerable points – during transport from the farm to the dairy plant.

“This is significant,” said Thompson, who got the ball rolling on the project during discussions with UK Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering Professor Fred Payne. “This is one of those projects that can really have an impact.”

Why a security system for milk? Payne, who wrote the project proposal and is lead investigator, said milk’s large batch size, its thorough mixing during processing, its rapid turnaround and consumption, and its high accessibility contribute to its status as a “high-risk food,” as identified by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Cumbersome safeguards during transport make the milk supply particularly vulnerable, he said.

One problem – and the focus of the prototype system – is the milk tank openings on trucks. Currently, milk transporters use plastic, numbered seals on the tanker openings, some of which are not tamper evident. And, in most cases, the only way to trace a broken seal and possible contamination is through a driver’s handwritten records.

“These sealing systems are problematic in that they are prone to record-keeping errors, and maintaining a broken seal is burdensome,” Payne wrote in the grant proposal. “It is not uncommon to have numerous broken seals for a single load of milk.”

Payne, Thompson and others working on the prototype want to minimize those problems and, therefore, enhance security by developing a wireless system that uses a biometric sensor to verify the driver’s identity, a Global Positioning Satellite system to provide the location of the truck and sensors on the tank openings to verify that only permitted personnel have access.

“If there is an entry into an access port on a milk truck, the proposed system will record the who, what, when and where,” Payne said. “The access ports will have sensors – that’s the ‘what.’ The data processing unit in the truck will record the ‘when.’ The GPS system will record ‘where’ the event occurred. And our biometric sensor will tell us ‘who’ was driving.”

Thompson stressed, however, that this is not a “Big Brother” project designed to give government undue influence.

“I don’t want a farmer, for instance, to think this little computer we’re putting on his farm to communicate with the dairy truck is an underhanded way of monitoring his farm,” he said.

Payne agreed. “We don’t need reams and reams of data. We will be judicious about the data we collect and store. That’s part of the administration of information that must take place. We only want to record the information essential for verifying the safety of the milk.”

Although the technology involved in this project has been available for quite some time, putting it to work for a small-margin industry such as the dairy industry has been cost-prohibitive, Thompson said. He wants to make sure that is no longer the case.

“Everything we come up with has to be applied, practical and cost effective,” Thompson said. “If it’s not, people are going to reject it.”

Part of the appeal, he believes, will be the added bonus of improved record keeping, not only for trace-back investigations in the event of a security breach or even a food-related illness, but also for making daily tasks more streamlined.

“All these records not only impact food safety systems, they impact dairy producer payment,” Thompson said. “So an added benefit, hopefully, will be improved ability to make accurate payments.”

The system will be designed as a protocol for the national, perhaps even the international, dairy industry and might be applicable for transport of other bulk foods, Payne said. The system is expected to take about two years to develop and one to test and refine.

In addition to Thompson and Payne, others involved in the project include: Tim Stombaugh, UK Department of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering; William Crist, UK Department of Animal and Food Sciences; Suraj M. Alexander, U of L Department of Industrial Engineering; and Phillip Womble, WKU Applied Physics Institute. A variety of dairy industry partners are also involved.

Contact: 

Writer: Terri McLean 859-257-4736, ext. 276

Contact: Chris Thompson, 859-257-2785 ext. 240
Fred Payne, 859-257-3000 ext. 220