KANSAS CITY, MO. - The food world is rapidly changing, particularly when it comes to food safety.

That was true even before COVID-19 hit. With the world now in the midst of the pandemic, keeping people and the foods they eat safe has become a matter of life and death.

The US Food and Drug Administration couldn’t have known in advance how timely its long-awaited New Era of Food Safety blueprint would be. Released this summer, the ambitious effort aims to bring some more stability and reassurance to a changed world. 

The blueprint outlines the approach the FDA will take over the next decade to respond to, and help usher in, a new era of food safety.

It includes achievable goals to enhance traceability, improve predictive analytics, respond more rapidly to outbreaks, address new business models, reduce contamination of food, and foster the development of stronger food safety cultures. It also outlines a partnership between the government, industry and public health advocates. 

The world around us is changing rapidly — many believe we will see more changes in the food system over the next 10 years than we have in decades,” according to the report. “Foods are being reformulated; there are new foods, new production methods, and new delivery methods; and the system is becoming increasingly digitized.”

Smarter food safety is about more than just technology, according to FDA officials. It's also about simpler, more effective, and modern approaches and processes — and leadership, creativity, and culture.

“Our ultimate goal is to bend the curve of foodborne illness in this country by reducing the number of illnesses. This outlines a partnership between government, industry and public health advocates based on a commitment to create a more modern approach to food safety.”

The challenges that have arisen during the COVID-19 pandemic have accelerated the need for actions called for in the blueprint, especially in times of crisis, said Stephen Hahn, the FDA’s commissioner.

The New Era of Food Safety blueprint represents the next stage in the process, Hahn said — a commitment the government is making to the American people promising to work as fast and effectively as it can to help ensure that the United States has the safest food system in the world.

“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 said. “Some of this innovation is already creating a revolution in food production, supply, and delivery. These developments offer great opportunity, but also pose many challenges, some of which are complicated by an increasingly complex global supply chain.” 

While the New Era program has a strong emphasis in the application of new technology, Hahn pointed out that it’s not just about technology.

“It’s about using that technology to build and put in place more effective approaches and processes,” he said. “The first is tech-enabled traceability.  This is one of those areas that we’ve learned during the pandemic has utility beyond our response to outbreaks of foodborne illness.”

One of the challenges the food industry has faced over the years is recurring outbreaks of illnesses associated with the consumption of certain foods, Hahn said.  What that problem underscores is the critical importance of the FDA working with industry so that it can rapidly trace a contaminated food to its source. 

“And when I say rapidly, I mean minutes, not days, weeks, or even longer,” Hahn said.

The FDA is committed to exploring new ways to encourage companies to adopt tracing technologies and also to harmonize efforts to follow food from farm to table, he added. The FDA “should strive to speak the same language, by espousing similar data standards across government and industry for tracking and tracing a food product.”

During the pandemic, the FDA and its industry partners realized that widespread traceability provides greater supply chain visibility.  This, in turn, Hahn said, 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,” Hahn said.

Four-fold focus

The blueprint focuses on four main objectives, or core elements:

Core Element 1: Tech-enabled Traceability seeks to advance traceability to help protect consumers from contaminated products by doing rapid tracebacks, identifying specific sources and helping to remove products from the marketplace as quickly as possible when necessary.

Ultimately, the goal is to support end-to-end traceability throughout the food safety system. The FDA will explore ways to encourage firms to voluntarily adopt tracing technologies and ways to harmonize tracing activities, which will support interoperability across a variety of technology solutions, working towards outcomes that are achievable for all sectors.

Core Element 2: Smarter Tools and Approaches for Prevention and Outbreak Response seeks to explore the preventive value of modern food safety approaches that generate new data streams as well as tools for rapidly analyzing big data. The FDA is looking to enhance and strengthen root cause analyses and predictive analytics. Findings of root cause analyses can be an important step in helping to modify practices to avoid identified risks and can provide more robust data for predictive analytics.

It is also important for the FDA to work with others in new and creative ways. These include the domestic mutual reliance initiative, in which the FDA seeks to build on existing efforts to partner with states that have comparable regulatory and public health systems, leveraging each other’s data and analytics to ensure optimal use of resources and maximize its food safety reach. They also include leveraging reliable third-party audits to advance food safety and having alternate approaches when traditional methods are not feasible.

These tools and approaches will also inform the FDA and its regulatory partners’ approach to inspections, outbreak response, and recall modernization.

Core Element 3: New Business Models and Retail Food Modernization is intended to address how to protect foods from contamination as new business models emerge and change to meet the needs of the modern consumer. The evolution of how food gets from farm to table continues with the emergence of e-commerce and new delivery models. The evolution of how food gets produced continues with the emergence of new business models that advance innovations in novel ingredients, new foods, and new food production systems. These new models include online shopping for meals and groceries, a practice that has surged during the COVID-19 pandemic. Looking at more traditional business models, the FDA is exploring ways to further modernize and help ensure the safety of foods sold at restaurants and other retail establishments.

Core Element 4: Food Safety Culture seeks to foster, support and strengthen food safety cultures on farms, in food facilities, and in homes. Dramatic improvements in reducing the burden of foodborne disease depends on everyone doing more to influence the beliefs, attitudes, and, most importantly, the behaviors of people and the actions of organizations.  A strong food safety culture is a prerequisite to effective food safety management.

Smarter tools and approaches for prevention and outbreak response

One of the most important resources the industry has today is the ability to unleash the power of data, according to the blueprint. FDA officials say the agency  intends to do everything it 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.

“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.”

The need for greater traceability and predictive analytics can be seen in the FDA’s 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.

Another example of the kinds of new tools the agency is developing for prevention can be seen in a pilot program the FDA is conducting 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 US 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,” according to FDA officials. “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.”

This story was featured in the September edition of Supermarket Perimeter. Click here to view the whole issue.