Highlights

  • New FDA goals for a more digital, transparent and safer food system
  • Tech-enabled traceability and analytical tools are new priorities
  • “Smarter” tools for preventing foodborne illness outbreaks
  • Focus on new business models, food safety culture

The incidence of foodborne illness caused by five of eight major pathogens is on the rise, according to the latest FoodNet surveillance report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).  Despite the passage of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) nearly a decade ago, the CDC has identified a need for more widespread prevention measures and new strategies for reducing foodborne illnesses in the United States. On July 13, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) unveiled a New Era of Smarter Food Safety blueprint as a comprehensive strategy to build upon the FSMA regulations by leveraging technology, predictive analytics, and food safety culture.

The implementation of the “New Era” blueprint will require the utilization of new and emerging technologies.  Beyond technological objectives, the FDA will focus on improving food safety within new business models as well as facilitating a stronger food safety culture throughout the system. The New Era of Smarter Food Safety blueprint is based on four core elements.

  1. Tech-enabled Traceability

Consumers can digitally track any purchase from online retailers, but the food industry is often unable to trace the origins of a food or ingredient due to the ongoing use of paper-based record systems.  The disparity between paper-based and digital methods results in insufficient product data that limits traceability capabilities to a “one step forward, one step back” approach.

In order to improve traceability along the food supply chain, the FDA intends to release a proposed rule in September for executing the FSMA requirements for traceability and high-risk foods. Section 204 of FSMA mandates the establishment of a list of high-risk foods, enhanced recordkeeping requirements, and new technologies for improving the tracking and tracing of food.

The “New Era” blueprint supports the standardization of a food traceability system.  The agency intends to “encourage and incentivize industry adoption of new technologies” to achieve its goal of end-to-end traceability throughout the food supply.  According to the blueprint, the agency will consider the use of “strong traceability systems” as a key factor in its risk-based planning for facility inspections.   The FDA has revealed plans to implement a “digital technology system, such as blockchain,” in order to process tracking events and data elements from the food industry.

Blockchain technology enables the management of a decentralized, digital ledger to record multiple stages. Frank Yiannas, FDA’s Deputy Commissioner for Food Policy and Response, has been an advocate for the use of blockchain to improve food traceability since his time as the head of food safety at Walmart.  According to Yiannas (2018), blockchain can significantly reduce the time required to trace food products through a supply chain.  In one case, blockchain technology enabled Walmart to reduce the time required to trace a shipment of mangoes from almost 7 days to only 2.2 seconds.

Crystalchain is a provider of blockchain technology that has supported the supply chain traceability initiatives of retailers and manufacturers.  In 2017, Crystalchain collaborated with the French retailer Carrefour to develop a blockchain deployment method and provide operational support in the implementation of the blockchain solution to enhance Carrefour’s supply chain traceability.  Carrefour has applied the Crystalchain solution to various food products ranging from fresh produce to chickens.

Ultimately, the FDA is encouraging food companies to adopt a technological solution for increasing transparency and end-to-end traceability throughout the food system. While some food companies have already implemented a digital traceability system, the FDA’s strategy is dependent upon a commitment from all segments of the food industry to adopt a technological approach to food safety and end-to-end traceability.

  1. Smarter Tools

The use of “smarter” tools for preventing and responding to foodborne illness outbreaks will be FDA priorities for the next decade.  As part of its “smarter food safety” initiative, the agency conducted a pilot project involving the evaluation of machine learning in conjunction with the PREDICT system for strengthening the predictive capability for imports, particularly imported seafood shipments.  Based on two years of seafood import data, the FDA project successfully targeted “violative” seafood imports affirming the potential of data analytics from technologies such as artificial intelligence.

The Core Element 2 (“Smarter Tools”) section of the blueprint contains numerous strategic proposals but provides limited details concerning how or when the goals might be achieved.  Listed below are a few examples of “Smarter Tools” identified within the blueprint:

  • Strengthen root cause analysis procedures.
  • Strengthen predictive analytics capabilities through expanded use of artificial intelligence and machine learning tools.
  • Develop processes to analyze big data and non-traditional data sources of information.
  • Evaluate the feasibility of using remote, virtual, and/or component inspections of foreign and domestic firms.
  • Encourage and evaluate the use of sensor technology by industry to strengthen monitoring of critical and preventive control points.
  • Expand industry and regulatory training to include computer-based and distance learning models.
  • Increase the use of reliable third-party audits to help ensure safer food, including exploring the use of reliable audit data in risk-prioritization for FDA regulatory activities.
  • Explore barriers and mechanisms to better leverage industry food testing results to identify possible outbreaks.
  1. New Business Models and Retail Modernization

The COVID-19 pandemic has triggered a surge in online grocery shopping. In fact, a recent survey indicated 31 percent of U.S households are using online grocery services. Additionally, the use of food delivery platforms has surged during the pandemic. A core element of the FDA’s blueprint is to address food safety issues associated with new business models, including food delivery methods and online food retailers.  Moreover, the FDA intends to evaluate the safety of new food production methods, novel ingredients, and new foods.

  1. Food Safety Culture

Food safety culture is recognized as the shared values, norms, and beliefs within a company that provide the foundation for effective food safety management.  The FDA intends to support and facilitate the development of food safety culture throughout the food system, including on farms, in food facilities and in homes.

An audit can reveal if an active food safety culture exists in a facility. The Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) has released guidance for understanding the five dimensions of a food safety culture: Vision and Mission, People, Consistency, Adaptability, and Hazards and Risk Awareness.

What’s Next?

Food safety will persist as a public health issue in the United States. In light of the coronavirus pandemic, more than 8 in 10 American consumers changed their food habits according to a recent survey conducted by the International Food Information Council.  The 2020 Food and Health Survey determined that 33% of 1,011 consumers surveyed lacked confidence in the safety of the food supply.

The “New Era” blueprint sheds light on the FDA’s strategy for improving food safety. Ultimately, a core goal of the initiative is to improve food safety by leveraging technologies for greater transparency and traceability of the food supply chain. While the FDA has not provided a timetable for accomplishing its new food safety objectives, the agency must collaborate with the food industry to achieve its goals for enhanced traceability during the upcoming year.  At this time, the big question is whether the food industry will be ready for the future of food safety.

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