Despite advancements in food safety, the rates of foodborne disease in the U.S. have not changed significantly over the last decade. In an effort to bend the curve of foodborne illnesses, FDA has released new guidelines that are expected to offer more effective and modern approaches and processes to the food industry.
New Era of Smarter Food Safety: FDA’s Blueprint for the Future is a 10-year roadmap designed to create a more digital, more traceable, and safer food system using technologies including, but not limited to, blockchain, sensor technology, the Internet of Things (IoT), and artificial intelligence (AI).
Angela Fernandez, a food traceability expert and vice president of community engagement for Ewing, N.J.-based GS1 US, collaborated with FDA to determine how GS1 standards would be essential for the blueprint. “The New Era blueprint is in many ways a response to the growing frustrations experienced by the industry and consumers over long, drawn-out investigations into foodborne illness outbreaks and the considerable gaps in end-to-end traceability,” she says. “It encourages the food system to prioritize food safety and enhance its tracking capabilities so that we don’t grow accustomed to a world where romaine lettuce is missing from our Thanksgiving tables each year.”
In announcing the blueprint through a video and press release, FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn emphasized the need for tech-enabled food traceability that leverages data standards across the industry to “speak the same language.”
Therese Myers, CEO of Infratab, Inc., Oxnard, Calif., which offers condition-intelligent radio frequency (RF)-sensor solutions for monitoring, tracking, and tracing perishables, notes that the implementation of these tools is significant because it signals a mindset change toward assessing, quantifying, and immutably documenting both risk and quality, taking steps to ensure that the perishable will have the provenance, safety, and shelf life consumers expect. “For food manufacturers, this will mean a move to a traceability system that’s interoperable, not proprietary, allowing the same system to be used regardless of the channel,” she says. “Data security is paramount, of course, but as the plan broadens the scope of traceability, it will become untenable for food manufacturers to rely on one system for this customer and another for that customer—we need systems that can efficiently, accurately, and securely talk to each other.”
Sergei Beliaev, former CIO at Walmart and currently executive vice president and chief strategy officer of DLT Labs, based in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, which has delivered many of the largest enterprise blockchain projects globally, describes this as an important undertaking because human health and safety are primary concerns—any number of deaths is too many, particularly if the cause is preventable. “Blockchain enables connectivity of information from any input in one unified, shared ledger that’s traceable, immutable, auditable, and real time to ensure a more digital, [more] traceable, and safer food system,” he says. “The power of real-time visibility and early detection and alerts are our best technological hopes to support the food safety blueprint.”
Smarter Food Safety Plan
Overall, the goal of the New Era blueprint is to curb foodborne illness by improving traceability, strengthening predictive analytic tools, and responding more quickly to outbreaks. Addressing new business models, reducing food contamination, and developing a stronger food safety culture across the industry are also important considerations.
The document calls for an increased level of information sharing, throughout the full life cycle of food and raw materials, to give manufacturers more reliable and complete information about how their products are transported, processed, and consumed. “This will allow for ongoing fact-based visibility and improvements to the agriculture and processing processes,” Beliaev says. “Information sharing will also enable consumers to make informed real-time product choices. The goal is to be able to use the information to look both forward and backward.”
Improved Food Safety
By creating a renewed sense of urgency around food safety, the New Era plan will help make recalls more efficient and stop potentially harmful foods from reaching consumers. “It will guide the industry toward a more agile supply chain and drive out manual practices that have plagued the food system for years,” Fernandez says. “This builds upon progress that has already been made over the last decade.”
Starting with the unique identification of product—one global number associated with a brand and product—manufacturers and their partners have a common foundation for traceability. Additional attributes, like batch and lot numbers that can be automatically captured at every step in the supply chain, are what enable additional levels of traceability.
End-to-end transparency of critical tracking events, coupled with clear provenance and certifiable manufacturing practices, will ensure that whenever food contamination is identified, its scope and location are quickly and easily identified, and it is traced back to its root source and causes.
“This will be a tremendous accelerator in responding to and containing the negative impacts,” Beliaev says. “Digitization of the key tracking events will also help create the necessary data to apply the predictive and analytical algorithms, which will be instrumental in taking the prevention capability to the next level, as well as defining the best course of action for containment activities.”
Moreover, the immutable and real-time nature of blockchain, together with automation via smart contracts, will ensure data quality, early alerts, and immediate response. “Blockchain is the glue that binds,” Beliaev says. “It establishes ubiquitous detection so that individuals can be fully integrated into an early warning and alert system, allowing information to flow from pallet to producer in real time.”
In the target state envisioned by the blueprint, any recall in the future should be able to generate a series of concurrent activities, starting with identification of affected batches and their removal and safe disposal. The potential outcome for a fully functional and integrated system is that manufacturers could save hundreds, if not thousands, of lives with early alerts and early reporting.
“The plan brings traceability systems into the real world, leveraging technologies already at work in other industries to improve the speed and accuracy of critical supply chain data and making it faster to access and analyze to prevent a small issue from becoming a major outbreak,” Myers says. “The intent is that with sensors and radio frequency identifications, it will take much less time to find a recalled item and get it off the shelf.”
The response among those in the food industry has been mostly positive, with many praising the blueprint.
For example, Leslie Sarasin, president and CEO of the Food Marketing Institute, Arlington, Va., notes the importance of FDA bringing technology to the forefront with this plan. “Within the food industry, we continue to witness how rapidly business models are changing; any new frameworks should be broad in nature and be adaptable with evolving business practices,” she says. “It’s critical that this new plan focuses on outcomes, leverages existing tools, increases communications with and among stakeholders, accounts for our variable resources and abilities, and provides uniformity that amplifies success.”
Still, there are some challenges to widespread adoption, especially among smaller food producers. “The obstacles to widespread adoption are legacy systems, such as temperature loggers,” Myers says. “Some companies will be reluctant to change due to the investment cost, which is why it’s even more important to adopt a new system that works with what you already have.”
Fernandez adds that small producers are a key part of uniting the food system and modernizing business processes for better traceability. “They can often act with greater agility than larger companies, but they need cost-effective solutions to do so,” she says. “Solution providers must be able to offer them scalable options that help them participate in end-to-end traceability. When smaller companies are able to see the shared value of an investment in technology, they are often more open to exploring emerging technology like blockchain.”
Tech in Motion
The use of this technology is projected to accomplish a great deal across the food industry. Still, Fernandez notes that what’s right for one company may not be right for another. “The blueprint provides general guidance toward more digitization and automation, focused on the benefits of these kinds of changes,” she says. “The importance of standards-based collaboration is a key point that can apply to all types of manufactures and all levels of supply chain participants. Regardless of whether you are using simple GS1-128 barcodes on your cases, or emerging technology like artificial intelligence, blockchain, or IoT, GS1 standards are foundational to making these technologies successful and help to ensure the industry speaks the same language when it comes to sharing product data.”
One example given by Hahn in a recent press release was the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning to screen imported seafood for safety. The release detailed a pilot program where FDA was able to create a screening tool that helped identify seafood that could be classified as unsafe by utilizing years of historical data on seafood shipments that had been refused entry into the U.S. or that required additional examination.
The next phase of the pilot project involves applying a machine learning algorithm to assist FDA staff in identifying which shipments to examine and what food in a shipment should be sent to a lab for testing. “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,” Hahn said in the blueprint introduction video. “It would save an immense amount of time, and potentially lives.”
In the year ahead, Fernandez believes there will be more supply chain partners working together to bring along smaller partners in terms of education on advanced technologies, preparation for increased automation, and phasing out reliance on manual processes.
Manufacturers that are not already digitally collaborating with their suppliers, distributors, and retail partners using global data standards should take steps to prepare their systems and data for a new level of automation. Fernandez advises that they should evaluate the quality of their data and determine whether or not they are using globally unique product identifiers and standardized product information that can be widely accepted and processed consistently as technology use and process automation in the supply chain grow. “For manufacturers that have already begun their digital transformation, the New Era blueprint encourages them to bring small- and medium-size partners along on their journey to create true end-to-end visibility,” she says.
While the initial plan represents a baseline, the amount of information is dynamic, not static. Over time, through leveraging accurate data (blockchain) and combining with AI, manufacturers and every party in the supply chain can have both specific information on individual supply chains and also comparative information that enables best practices.