Exclusive: Pandemic Lessons to Inform “New Era” Blueprint

Features - Regulation

A conversation with FDA’s Frank Yiannas.

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June 3, 2020

© frank yiannis

On April 30, 2019, FDA announced the development of a strategic blueprint for the future of food safety: New Era of Smarter Food Safety. With a goal to “leverage technology and other tools to create a more digital, traceable, and safer food system,” FDA solicited stakeholder input and held an all-day public meeting in October 2019 to help shape the blueprint. At just over a year since its introduction, where does the “New Era” stand?

Having worked on the blueprint since last year, said FDA Deputy Commissioner for Food Policy and Response Frank Yiannas, “We were on the verge of releasing it mid-March — then shifted because of the pandemic.” But, he said, the FDA teams have continued working on it. “New Era for Food Safety is a blueprint for a decade-long roadmap that we will release when the time is right, so we’re continuing to work on short- and long-term deliverables.”

In fact, he said, “Having gone through the pandemic, there are so many things we talked about that would have been beneficial if the pandemic had happened in the future,” such as the implementation of digital, technology-enabled remote surveillance and the importance of food safety culture. “So I’m confident that the ideas were the right ones.”

Additionally, although the COVID-19 pandemic has brought numerous challenges and disruptions for the food industry, its responses have moved technology and other areas forward in ways that will inform and benefit the blueprint. “An unfortunate positive has come out of the pandemic,” Yiannas said. “When the dust settles some best practices will emerge.”

NEW ERA LEARNINGS. In relation to the four core elements of the blueprint, Yiannas said the pandemic has brought new learnings in:

Tech-Enabled Traceability and Foodborne Outbreak Response. The pandemic has clearly shown the importance and strengthened the realization that traceability goes beyond food safety, he said. “Traceability is the foundation of transparency; having knowledge of where the foods are at any point of time is invaluable in situations like this.”

In the case of the pandemic, traceability could have more accurately pinpointed where excess food was to enable it to be diverted more quickly to where it was needed. It wasn’t that there was not enough food, he said, there was too much in the wrong places. If we had had a more digitized, interconnected food system, this could have been better handled, both then and in the long-term. However, he added, it needs to be digitized with appropriate standards, labeling requirements, etc., so the food system can become more interoperable.

When asked about the reference to blockchain by FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn at a February NASDA Conference, Yiannas said blockchain is one of the technologies being discussed, but it’s not the only one. Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI), and other technology tools are also being discussed.

“I have no doubt that blockchain will be part of the new era,” as it is an emerging platform toward which the industry is migrating, Yiannas said. But he feels that FDA should be technologically agnostic. The agency is interested in any technology that will help with traceability, he said, “But it’s not about blockchain; it’s not about IA. It’s about the public health challenge we’re all trying to solve.”

The New Era of Smarter Food Safety has four core elements that extend to all areas of the industry.
© FDA

Smarter Tools and Approaches for Prevention. With the travel and shelter-in-place restrictions of the pandemic, FDA as well as state and locally regulated inspections were brought to a halt. Because of that, some areas started conducting remote virtual inspections at retail. Those inspections and experiments in different states, and in other countries, are providing lessons that can be applied to the development of more remote monitoring and surveillance. It is an area the Food and Drug Administration had planned to develop, Yiannas said.

Adapting to New Business Models and Retail Food Safety Modernization. “The tsunami of buying online is changing retail,” Yiannas said. During the pandemic, there was a rush to get into e-commerce and online ordering. Prior to the pandemic, FDA had anticipated that 20% of groceries would be ordered online by 2023. “But we’re seeing that the conversion is happening much more quickly,” he said, and he doesn’t see the trend reversing when the crisis has passed. So FDA will look at what worked and what didn’t. There probably will not be one best way, rather they will be able to compile best practices.

“There is a tremendous experiment going on as businesses have jumped into online,” Yiannas said, adding,“We have been very observant in talking to industry about best products and technologies being used.”

Food Safety Culture. Though he may not be the originator of the phrase, Yiannas has been the most prominent and prodigious driver of food safety culture through the industry. At the start, he said, it was difficult to get executives and food scientists to focus on the “soft stuff” of culture. But during the pandemic, at a time when regulators were not able to get to facilities, the idea that the food facility has the responsibility to produce safe food regardless of federal oversight is critically important. In fact, Yiannas said he found that those organizations with the strongest food safety culture were very quick to adopt worker safety measures. As such, he said, “An established and strong culture of food and occupational safety is critical to our future.”

PUBLIC/PRIVATE PARTNERSHIPS. In addition to the lessons the pandemic brought to the core components of the New Era blueprint, Yiannas said, it showed the importance of effective public/private partnerships.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, it caused a great deal of supply-chain disruption. But through close coordination between the public and private sectors, he said, they were able to work to get the food where it was needed.

It wasn’t that there wasn’t enough food, but that there was an imbalance, he said, explaining, “There was a lot of food, but it was in the wrong places.” Close coordination helped divert the food to be used, and temporary FDA policies allowed shipments to go to retail without full nutritional labeling, as long as they had clear ingredient labels and allergen listing. FDA also worked with FEMA to get face coverings to industry, he said. “I talked to folks in the private sector every day, multiple times a day,” Yiannas said. “They were an invaluable source of information.”

INDUSTRY RESILIENCY. Having been in the private sector for more than 30 years with executive food safety positions at Disney and Walmart, and now at FDA, Yiannas said, “I’ve always thought that the US food system was one of the best in the world. The crisis has tested the food system, but the reality is that there is a lot of positive. The system was tested harder than ever before, certainly than in the last 100 years, and the fact is that you can still walk into the grocery store and see tens of thousands of SKUs.”

As such, Yiannas said he has been impressed with the resiliency of the food industry during the pandemic, stating, “I have no doubt that we will learn lessons and create a stronger and more resilient food system.”

The author is Editor of QA magazine. She can be reached at llupo@gie.net.