The Food & Drug Administration today unveiled the New Era of Smarter Food Safety, a strategic blueprint to bolster protection of the nation’s food supply that builds on the nearly decade-old Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA).
FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn said the New Era plan marks a new approach to food safety in terms of employing technology and other tools to establish a more digital, traceable food supply chain. The goal is to “bend the curve” of foodborne illness by enhancing traceability, improving predictive analytics, responding more rapidly to outbreaks, addressing new business models, reducing food contamination and developing stronger food safety cultures.
“The blueprint outlines a path forward that builds on the work the FDA has already done through implementation of the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). As you know, FSMA has been a centerpiece of our work to help ensure food safety and prevent foodborne illnesses through the use of science and risk-based standards. The authority granted by FSMA enables a flexible framework that is adaptable to the changing food environment as science and technologies evolve,” Hahn said in a press conference on Monday.
“The blueprint we release today represents the next stage in this process — a commitment we are making to the American people that we will work as fast and effectively as we can to help ensure that we have the safest food system in the world. And we’ll do this in part by incorporating the use of the most modern technologies that are already in use in society and the business sector,” he explained. “Some of this innovation is already creating a revolution in food production, supply and delivery.”
Hahn said tech-enabled traceability will allow the FDA and food supply chain stakeholders to address a key challenge in recent years: recurring outbreaks of illnesses related to the consumption of certain foods. Greater use of technology will enable faster tracing of contaminated food to its source in minutes — “not days, weeks, or even longer,” he noted.
“We want to explore ways to encourage companies to adopt tracing technologies and also to harmonize efforts to follow food from farm to table. We should strive to speak the same language by espousing similar data standards across government and industry for tracking and tracing a food product,” Hahn said.
Supply issues during the coronavirus pandemic, he pointed out, showed that widespread tracing capability provides more supply chain visibility.
“This, in turn, can help the FDA and the food industry anticipate the kind of imbalances in the marketplace that led to temporary shortages of certain commodities and created food waste when producers lost customers because restaurants, schools and other sites temporarily closed,” he said. “In addition, enhanced traceability, coupled with advanced analytical tools, could help us spot potential problems in advance and help us prevent or lessen their impact.”
Core elements of the New Era plan include tech-enabled traceability, smarter tools and approaches for prevention and outbreak response, new business models and retail modernization, and fostering more responsible attitudes on food safety.
In the area of smarter tools, the New Era blueprint aims to draw on the power of new data streams, including better-quality data, more meaningful analysis and actionable information, especially in prevention.
“The plans embraced by the blueprint include strengthening our procedures and protocols for conducting the root cause analyses that can identify how a food became contaminated and inform our understanding of how to help prevent that from happening again,” according to Hahn. “The need for greater traceability and predictive analytics can be seen in our most recent efforts to improve the safety of romaine lettuce and other leafy greens, which have too often been implicated in outbreaks of Shiga-toxin producing E. coli (STEC) infections. The repeat nature of these outbreaks illustrates the importance of achieving end-to-end traceability and of maximizing the effectiveness of root cause analyses.”
A pilot now being conducted by the FDA, for instance, uses artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning technology to sharpen the agency’s review of imported foods at ports of entry, helping to ensure they meet U.S. food safety standards.
“A proof of concept application of AI and machine learning models to historical shipment data indicates that we can expect very promising results from this pilot,” Hahn said. “Imagine having a tool that expedites the clearance of legitimate, compliant shipments and improves by 300% our ability to know which shipping container to examine because that container is more likely to have violative products. It would save an immense amount of time and. potentially, lives.”
The FDA, too, is looking at food safety in new business models for the production and delivery of food, particularly with groceries and meals increasingly being ordered online and delivered to consumers’ homes.
“We must help ensure that as these foods travel to our front doors, they continue to be safe for consumers. That concept is important anytime, but COVID-19 has accelerated the need to establish best practices and an industry standard of care in this area,” said Hahn. “New business models include novel ways of producing foods and ingredients, such as cell-cultured food products, and we plan to take a close look at these. We intend to ensure that as food technology evolves, our oversight evolves along with it.”
Food safety also needs to be modernized at restaurants and other retail food outlets, he continued, noting that these locations are among the more frequently cited sites associated with outbreaks of foodborne illness.
“FDA research shows the importance of supporting practices in retail establishments known to reduce the risk of food contamination, such as proper hand washing and storing foods at the right temperature. We’re committed to exploring new approaches of food safety that go beyond traditional training and inspection,” Hahn said, adding that the FDA also will explore the use of new digital tools that support food safety practices.
Finally, the blueprint aims to create a “food safety culture” on farms and in food facilities worldwide to engender a greater sense of responsibility for safeguarding the food supply chain.
“We still believe that, to make dramatic reductions foodborne disease, we must do more to influence and change human behavior, as well as to address how employees think about food safety and how they demonstrate their commitment to this as part of their jobs,” Hahn said. “But a strong culture of food safety involves more than this. It’s also about keeping those food workers safe and about educating consumers, who are cooking more at home these days, on safe food handling practices. We’re not just encouraging the food industry to make changes; we’re looking within our ranks to see how we can approach these issues differently to better support and advance each of these priority areas.”
Food industry groups voiced their support of the New Era of Smarter Food Safety plan after the FDA announced it Monday afternoon.
“The New Era of Smarter Food Safety blueprint provides an innovative approach to food safety, one that recognizes and builds on the progress made in the past but looks toward the processes and tools that will be needed for the future,” Leslie Sarasin, president and CEO of FMI-The Food Industry Association, said in a statement. “Within the food industry, we continue to witness how rapidly business models are changing. Any new frameworks should be broad in nature and be adaptable with evolving business practices. It’s critical that this new plan focuses on utcomes, leverages existing tools, increases communications with and among stakeholders, accounts for our variable resources and abilities, and provides uniformity that amplifies success.
“On behalf of the retailers, wholesalers, product suppliers and other stakeholders within the FMI membership, I thank FDA for its leadership in designing a plan that creates a more digital, traceable and safer food system,” Sarasin added. “We look forward to working with the agency on the implementation of its Smarter Food Safety plan.”
The American Frozen Food Institute (AFFI) cited the New Era plan’s efforts to step up technology use in safeguarding the U.S. food supply.
“The frozen food industry is committed to advancing food safety, and we are appreciative of FDA’s pandemic response and commend FDA for proactively identifying ways to use new and emerging technologies to continue to provide Americans with the safest possible food supply,” stated AFFI President and CEO Alison Bodor. “The agency’s new plan builds on the many improvements seen through the implementation of the Food Safety Modernization Act, and the frozen food industry is committed to continuing this comprehensive, risk-based approach to food safety. We look forward to continuing to work with FDA in its efforts to modernize food safety oversight.”
The Association of Food and Drug Officials (AFDO) noted that, in December, Executive Director Steven Mandernach provided written comment on the New Era strategu on behalf of organization and its members.
“We are pleased that our input clearly helped inform the development of the blueprint,” Mandernach said. “The New Era of Smarter Food Safety Blueprint leverages the existing relationships with domestic mutual reliance with state, local, tribal and territorial food safety agencies while also enhancing this relationship through information sharing, modernizing inspections, and adoption of root cause analysis. Further, FDA recognizes in this program the importance of modernizing food safety in restaurants and other retail food establishments that are the source for many of the illnesses.”