Each year, foodborne illnesses sicken 48 million Americans (approximately 17% of people in the United States) and lead to 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths, according to the CDC. “Although there have been great improvements in technologies to track and trace foods from farm to table, and remove recalled foods from the market, many are expensive to deploy and maintain,” says Emily R. Lyons, JD, senior associate attorney working in the food and agribusiness industry group at Husch Blackwell LLP, in Washington, DC. “This makes them cost prohibitive for smaller and medium-sized businesses.”
In light of this problem, FDA issued a New Era of Smarter Food Safety initiative in July 2020, to leverage technology and other tools to create a safer and more digital, traceable food system. Then, in June 2021, FDA asked stakeholders to recommend low-cost or no-cost options in its No-Cost Tech-Enabled Traceability Challenge so that approaches are inclusive of and viable for human and animal food operations of all sizes. “Democratizing the benefits of digitizing data will allow the entire food system to move more rapidly toward digital traceability systems,” says Frank Yiannas, FDA’s deputy commissioner of Food Policy and Response.
FDA’s challenge called on technology providers, public health advocates, entrepreneurs, and innovators from all disciplines worldwide to develop traceability hardware, software, or data analytics platforms that are low cost or no cost to end users.
Developing and deploying low-cost and no-cost traceability tools will benefit everyone by increasing organization participation, improving data capture and sharing, and accelerating foodborne illness outbreak response.—Bryan Hitchcock
The deadline for submissions is July 30. The tech-enabled solutions could be new or based on existing systems or datasets. Of those who scored the highest based on the evaluation criteria, up to 12 winners will be announced at a future date.
Yiannas believes that a number of technologies can be employed to track and trace foods. But because the food system is large, distributed, and decentralized, traceability solutions that are simple to use, cost-effective, and interoperable are more likely to be rapidly adopted. “By having an open challenge, FDA may become aware of new technologies and business models that they didn’t previously consider,” he says. “If FDA limited participants to a specific type of technology or problem to solve, it would most likely restrict the range of ideas brought forth.”
Tejas Bhatt, MS, CFS, senior director of U.S. and Global Food Safety Innovation at Walmart Inc., in Bentonville, Ark., supports FDA’s choice not to be too prescriptive when it comes to the types of technologies that might be suitable, because, he says, the solution won’t be one-size-fits-all. “We need the industry to innovate and solve this problem collectively, instead of having data sit in silos using proprietary standards and be closed off to commercial solutions,” he says. “Data should flow from one technology solution that might work for a farmer to another technology solution that might work for a larger company like Walmart.”
Lyons says current options could be expanded for use in the food system. The key elements of a good solution are automation of data collection and the ability to collect consistent information (known as key data elements) at many different points in the supply chain (known as critical tracking events).
The types of innovations that are necessary will largely depend upon an entity’s specific role in a supply chain. Food producers may be more interested in how to generate real-time data regarding their crops and the inputs used to produce them and how to generate that information in a way that can be easily communicated up the supply chain, Lyons says. Manufacturers may desire additional innovations in blockchain, robotics, the Internet of Things, and in-line sensor technology. Meanwhile, retailers may want tools that help meet brand or consumer expectations for products and ways to communicate that to consumers at the point of purchase.