USA – The US Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) has unveiled the blueprint for the New Era of Smarter Food Safety, after its earlier plans for launch in March was impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Speaking during the release, the Commissioner, Stephen M. Hahn, M.D., said that the blueprint outlines a path forward that builds on the work the FDA has already done through implementation of its Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA).

“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.

“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, as fast and effectively as we can, to help ensure that we have the safest food system in the world,” he said. 

He added that the blueprint will incorporate the use of the most modern technologies that are already in use in society and the business sector and that are already creating a revolution in food production, supply, and delivery across the globe.

“These developments offer great opportunity, but also pose many challenges, some of which are complicated by an increasingly complex global supply chain,” he reiterated, adding that while the New Era has a strong emphasis in the application of new technology, it’s not just about technology but also using that technology to build and put in place more effective approaches and processes. 

“We must help ensure that as these foods travel to our front doors, they continue to be safe for consumers. That concept is important at any time, but COVID-19 has accelerated the need to establish best practices and an industry standard of care in this area.”

FDA Commissioner, Stephen M. Hahn, M.D

The blueprint outlines the FDAs plans over the next 10 years to create a more digital, traceable, and safer food system. 

Broken supply chains

According to Frank Yiannas, the FDA’s Deputy Commissioner for Food Policy and Response, the challenges that have arisen during the pandemic have made it clear that the actions called for in the blueprint will strengthen how the FDA and other agencies approach the safety and security of the food supply, not just in the normal course of events but especially in times of crisis.

“We have just witnessed a historic crisis for the food system that world has ever seen. Early in the pandemic consumers rushed to buy food from retail stores and then immediately thereafter as hotels and food service operators closed, there was a lack of demand in those channels. The supply chain issues across the world meant food was available in the wrong places, resulting in food being dumped in some cases,” he revealed.

Enhanced Traceability

According to the Commissioner, the new blue print has a number of core elements, some of it new and some have been part of the discussions to improve the food safety supply chain.

These elements include enhanced, technology-enabled traceability systems, smarter tools and approaches for prevention and outbreak response, new business models and retail modernization and food safety culture.

According to the FDA, this pandemic has shown light on the urgent need to adopt technology enabled traceability systems beyond its response to outbreaks of foodborne illnesses.

“One of the challenges we’ve faced over the years is recurring outbreaks of illnesses associated with the consumption of certain foods. What this daunting problem underscores is the critical importance of the FDA working with industry so that we can rapidly trace a contaminated food to its source.  And when I say rapidly, I mean minutes, not days, weeks, or even longer.”

Hahn revealed that the FDA is exploring ways to encourage companies to adopt tracing technologies and also to harmonize efforts to follow food from farm to table, with all stakeholders striving to speak the same language, by espousing similar data standards across government and industry for tracking and tracing a food product.

“During the pandemic we realized that widespread traceability provides greater 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. 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.”

Smarter tools for outbreak prevention and response

The new blueprint asks the FDA and other stakeholders in the food safety system to draw on the enormous power of new data streams to enhance outbreak prevention and response during crisis situations like the Covid-19 pandemic.

“One of our most important resources we have today lies in our ability to unleash the power of data. We intend to do everything we can to attain better quality data, conduct a more meaningful analysis of it, and to transform streams of data into more meaningful, strategic, and prevention-oriented actions,” Hahn explained.

The plans embraced by the blueprint include strengthening procedures and protocols for conducting the root cause analyses that can identify how a food became contaminated and inform understanding of how to help prevent that from happening again, giving an example of the recent spate of food-borne illnesses from consumption of green, leafy vegetables in the US due to Shiga-toxin producing E. coli infections – hence the importance of achieving end-to-end traceability and of maximizing the effectiveness of root cause analyses.

He revealed that the FDA is conducting a pilot program that will leverage artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning to strengthen the agency’s review of imported foods at ports of entry to help ensure that they meet U.S. food safety standards, which through the application of historical shipment data have given promising results.

“Imagine having a tool that expedites the clearance of legitimate, compliant shipments and improves by 300 percent 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.”

New business models and retail modernization

Hahn cautioned that with new business models for the production and delivery of food, there is need to look at new ways to manage the risks to the supply chain and the consumer, as in recent years, groceries and meals have increasingly been ordered online and delivered directly to homes – and as the demand for food ordered online from restaurants and supermarkets has skyrocketed during the pandemic.

“We must help ensure that as these foods travel to our front doors, they continue to be safe for consumers. That concept is important at any time, but COVID-19 has accelerated the need to establish best practices and an industry standard of care in this area.”

He further added that new business models including novel ways of producing foods and ingredients, such as cell-cultured food products, regulators take a closer look to ensure that as food technology evolves, the oversight evolves along with it, to help ensure food safety.

He also revealed that the FDA will work to help modernize food safety at restaurants and other retail food outlets, which are one of the more frequently cited locations associated with outbreaks of foodborne illness. It will also encourage and explore the use of new digital tools that will support food safety practices in these establishments.

A new culture of food safety

The FDA notes that the pandemic has given it a new perspective on what food safety culture means and that it will focus on fostering the growth of and strengthening of food safety culture on farms and in food facilities all over the world.

“We still believe that to make dramatic reductions in 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. 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,” Hahn said

He reiterated the need to encouraging the food industry to make changes; while the regulatory agencies must also change how they approach these issues differently to better support and advance each of these priority areas.

According to the FDA, publishing the new blueprint involved broad input from stakeholders, representing the expertise of food safety experts, the food industry, technology companies, and public health officials from all over the world.