Keeping food safe by improving traceability is high on the agenda of government and industry groups for 2020. The reasons why likely come as no surprise: It took health officials six weeks to trace the source of an E. coli outbreak in romaine lettuce in 2018. Some outbreaks, like the 2019 one involving blackberries, are difficult to trace because a distribution center may not keep records of where its various fruit shipments originate. Additionally, some outbreaks simply can’t be traced.
Two initiatives by FDA this year aim to improve traceability. One, the “New Era of Smarter Food Safety Blueprint,” is expected to be rolled out in the first quarter and includes recommendations for using digital technology to improve traceability and food safety. The other initiative would create a list of high-risk foods, along with additional recordkeeping for those foods, by September, with a final rule due by November 2022. Both initiatives fall under the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA).
Industry experts see the increased focus on traceability as a way of moving from merely tracking an outbreak to potentially preempting a crisis by bringing technology to bear in both recording data and then analyzing it efficiently and effectively. “This is going to be the biggest year for traceability in a very long time. It will be one of those landmark years,” says Dr. Jennifer McEntire, PhD, vice president of food safety and technology at the United Fresh Produce Association, an industry group in Washington, D.C. “If you can’t get to the source of the problem, it will continue to happen.”
Tejas Bhatt, senior director of food safety innovations at Walmart in Bentonville, Ark., agrees. “Traditional traceability is viewed as a reactive tool used after the problem has occurred,” he says. “It can [also] be a preventive tool, to prevent an outbreak. Technology is one thing that’s missing.”
And the complexity of tracing foods today is something FDA recognizes. In a statement last April on the Smarter Food Safety initiative, acting FDA Commissioner Ned Sharpless, MD, and Deputy Commissioner Frank Yiannas, said, “Today’s technology-focused world has morphed the way our society operates, creating a highly complex and globally interconnected landscape that is fundamentally changing the way foods move from farm to table. We’ve evolved from a system that sources foods from ‘around the corner’ to ‘around the world’ and are now redefining the ‘last mile’ with the emergence of various direct-to-home food delivery models.”
In addition to genetics tools already in use, FDA is expected to leverage emerging technologies, including distributed ledgers, sensors, the Internet of Things, and artificial intelligence to improve food safety.
The main areas FDA is focusing on include:
1. Technology-enabled traceability and foodborne outbreak response. This initiative will examine technologies, data streams, and processes to reduce the time it takes to track and trace the origin of a contaminated food and respond to public health risks.
2. Smarter tools and prevention approaches. The goal is to enhance the use of new knowledge from traceback, data streams, and tools for rapidly analyzing data. Using new data analysis tools and predictive analytics will help FDA and stakeholders better identify and mitigate potential food safety risks and advance the preventive controls framework that FSMA established.
3. Adapting to new business models and retail food safety modernization. This initiative will focus on advancing the safety of both new business models, such as e-commerce and home delivery of foods, and traditional business models, including retail food establishments.
4. Food safety culture. FDA wants to promote and recognize the role of food safety culture in farms and facilities. This will involve doing more to influence what employees and companies think about food safety and how they demonstrate a commitment to this work. FDA also is working to educate consumers on safe food handling practices.