Seeing the Potential in Traceability for the Food Safety Industry

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Six months on, FDA’s New Era for Smarter Food Safety is making traceability one of the buzziest words in the industry, and the concept is already becoming a reality.

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February 8, 2021

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Stop what you’re doing and imagine. Picture consumers being able to walk into a grocery store, pick up your product, scan it with a mobile device and gain peace of mind when they read where it came from thanks to blockchain and other new technologies. Or, if you’re a manufacturer, daydream about being able to look down at your phone and get a reading on everything that’s happening in your plant in the moment because of Internet of Things tools.

It’s not make-believe. It’s what’s possible with technologies that are already here, according to Frank Yiannas, the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) deputy commissioner for food policy and response.

“This is not blue-sky imaginary thinking,” Yiannas said. “We’re not talking about things that can’t be done. They’re happening as we speak. We live in a day and age where everything can be increasingly digitized.”

In order to keep up with these technologies and deal with a changing food industry — where consumers are demanding healthier, safer, traceable food — the FDA launched its New Era for Smarter Food Safety in July 2020. The FDA’s new approach includes a blueprint that lays out goals to enhance things such as traceability, predictive analytics, the capability to respond more quickly to outbreaks and more. FDA also outlined a new food traceability rule last year.

“[FSMA] was the most sweeping reform to our nation’s food laws in many years,” Yiannas said. “And while there’s still work to be done in FSMA, modernization isn’t something you can just do once a decade.”

Aside from trying to keep up with change and follow what Yiannas believes is a mandate set by the passage of FSMA to continue to modernize, he stressed that another reason to usher in the New Era is the constant fight to make food safer.

“While we’ve made advancements in food safety, the reality is that there’s work to be done,” Yiannas said. “If you look at foodborne disease statistics or incidence rates as reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the rates haven’t changed much in a couple of decades. Our commitment is to bend the curve of foodborne illness once and for all in this country.”

Setting An Example.

Perhaps few things exemplify the industry’s struggle with foodborne illness than the recent recalls of leafy greens, including romaine lettuce.

According to the CDC, 51 foodborne disease outbreaks were linked to leafy greens between 2014 and 2018, resulting in 1,406 people getting sick.

Having good traceability tools in place can reduce the time it takes to go back and identify potentially contaminated food, meaning fewer hours worked, and can help provide for more targeted recalls, resulting in less wasted food.

“The FDA and the leafy green industry have been investing a lot of time, gathering information around some of the food safety challenges that are there, particularly in romaine,” said Bryan Hitchcock, executive director of the Global Food Traceability Center at the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT). “This was an action item level in the FDA’s [traceability] plan around addressing leafy greens.”

So, as Hitchcock put it, “It’s important to take it out of the conference room and off the video conference and go test drive things and see if the ideas and the templates and the things that are happening move the needle and how can they be improved.”

To support FDA’s New Era, IFT partnered with the Food Industry Association (FMI), GS1 U.S., International Foodservice Distributers Association (IFDA), Produce Marketing Association (PMA) and United Fresh Produce Association (United Fresh) to create a task force and run traceability pilot programs focusing on leafy greens.

Working with growers, distributors and retailers (independents and chains) from July to October 2020, the pilots focused on various romaine lettuce products, and showed that “investigations into foodborne illness outbreaks could be streamlined and conducted more effectively when supply chain partners provided extended product information during tracebacks,” the report overview stated.

Hitchcock acknowledges that there’s going to need to be education, training and understanding to get more businesses in the supply chain up to speed.

“The associations and the FDA also recognize that this is going to be a journey for folks, and we need to provide the tools to help them,” he said.

But Hitchcock also pointed out that these pilots can serve as a great example to other sectors of the industry looking to improve traceability.

“IFT and the Global Food Traceability Center are very active in seafood as well, and very similar types of things are happening,” he said. “The templates may be a little bit different, some of the information may be a little bit different, but it’s certainly deployable across multiple industries.”

While the FDA’s New Era and proposed traceability rule are still in the early going, there’s work that suppliers and manufacturers can do now. In fact, one of the first steps may simply be checking to see if the new regulations apply to you.

“[FDA has] outlined the product categories that are going to be subject to these new rules,” said Eric Hansen, vice president of technical solutions at SafetyChain Software, which develops tools to help food manufacturers capture data.

And even if it doesn’t apply to you, Hansen said that it provides a good framework for companies to set up traceability for risk management and public safety purposes.

“That might actually be one of the nice byproducts of this,” he said. “Even beyond where it applies, the food traceability rule lays out a reusable framework. So even people who are not subject to it might use that as a guide.”

Looking Ahead.

Part of what’s included in the New Era is also looking ahead at artificial intelligence, machine learning and predictive analytics to see potential problems down the road or improve efficiencies.

“It has the ability to identify trends or make you ask questions that maybe you didn’t know you had to ask,” Yiannas said.

He used the example of UPS, which used analytics to determine it can save time by reducing the unnecessary left turns its drivers make.

“They started digitizing all of the data: how fast their trucks were going, when they were idling, routes that they were taking, if they were turning left or right,” Yiannas said. “And lo and behold, only by digitizing information, using computational power and big data, they found out that when those trucks were making left hand turns, they tend to idle a lot, consume more gas and take a long time. You didn’t see it until you analyzed the data.”

Potential realizations such as that for the food industry make now an exciting time, Yiannas said.

“I’ve never been as excited as I am today to work on food safety,” he said. “While some of the challenges are daunting, I feel like for the first time in history, I truly sit at the threshold of a sea change on the tools that we can use to solve them. … I do believe that over the course of the next decade, you will see that curve of foodborne illness decrease, and we will do it together using new approaches.”