WASHINGTON – The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic was never a threat to food safety, but it certainly informed the US Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) plans to strengthen the safety of the US food supply.

On July 13, FDA Commissioner Stephen M. Hahn announced the release of the agency’s New Era of Smarter Food Safety Blueprint which outlines what the agency believes are achievable goals toward creating a digital, transparent and safer food system by leveraging artificial intelligence, machine learning and through other initiatives. The core elements of the blueprint are:

  • tech-enabled traceability that will replace a largely paper-based records system;
  • smarter tools and approaches to foodborne illness prevention and outbreak response such as artificial intelligence and machine learning that capture the power of new data streams;
  • new business models and retail modernization; and
  • a global food safety culture that addresses how employees think about food safety and how they demonstrate a commitment to food safety.

Hahn said the blueprint builds on work already accomplished with the implementation of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA).

“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,” Hahn said.

“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.”

FDA will strive to encourage food companies to adopt farm-to-fork tracing technologies and harmonize traceability efforts. The goal is to trace a contaminated food to its source in a matter of minutes, not days or even longer, Hahn said.

“During the pandemic we realized that widespread traceability provides greater supply chain visibility,” Hahn said. “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.”

New tools and approaches to outbreak prevention will draw on new data streams, Hahn said. FDA is committed to collecting better quality data and conducting more meaningful analyses of it to gain actionable insights that lead to strategic and prevention-based 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,” Hahn explained. “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.”

To that end, FDA has engaged a pilot program that uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to strengthen the agency’s review of imported foods.

“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,” he said. “It would save an immense amount of time, and potentially lives.”

Stay-at-home orders issued at the start of the pandemic spurred a massive shift to home cooking from dining out occasions. Online grocery shopping and home delivery skyrocketed. Rabobank International expects online grocery sales to reach 6.4% of total grocery sales by the end of 2021.

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

New methods of producing ingredients and foods like cell cultured meat also will be on the agency’s radar. Hahn said FDA intends for the agency’s oversight to evolve along with new food production technologies.

The pandemic also has given FDA a new perspective on the meaning of a culture of food safety, Hahn said. A core element of the blueprint is to foster a new culture of food safety on farms and 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,” he 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.”

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