Prevent foodborne illness

A New Era of Smarter Food Safety: An Expert Opinion

Chip Manuel, Ph.D.


By Chip Manuel, Ph.D.

Food Safety Science Advisor, GOJO Industries

The FDA Gathered Industry Thought-Leaders

I was recently able to participate in the FDA’s public meeting with food industry thought leaders on how to usher in a new era of smarter food safety.

As the FDA plans a strategic blueprint outlining steps to protect public health and improve the global food supply chain, I wanted to take a moment to share my thoughts on the meeting. As someone who was able to observe this monumental event, I believe it is crucial that those unable to attend could still understand what was discussed – and hopefully feel inspired to change the way they approach food safety in 2020.

Using a cross-section of stakeholders – thought leaders from all across the food supply chain – the FDA had a public meeting on how to modernize the food industry so it had stronger food safety processes. This discussion was to help create a blueprint that could be used to usher in a "new era of smarter food safety."

The meeting included breakout sections on four key topics of discussion:
  1. Traceability
  2. Prevention Tools and Approaches
  3. New Business Models and Retail Modernization
  4. Food Safety Culture

With the four key topics established, we were able to steer conversations and discuss objectives that could help develop a strategic plan to address the public health challenges—from the farm to the table and everywhere in-between.

Ultimately, the information discussed would help FDA’s efforts in implementing the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). The goal was to welcome in a new era of smarter food safety that helps protect people from contaminated food, reduces the risks of cross-contamination, and decreases the number of foodborne illnesses, which leads to enhanced safety of our nation's complex food supply.

With more digital, more traceable, and safer systems discussed, and close to being implemented, I left the public meeting with a sense that the FDA’s ambitious goal of taking a modern approach to food safety is achievable if the industry continues down this collaborative path.

Is 2020 the Start of a New Era of Food Safety?

This meeting got me thinking, “How can we, collectively as an industry, start to think differently about food safety?”

With the start of the new year there’s no better time to make a concentrated effort to look at what’s worked in the past, what modern steps can be taken today, and what is in store for the industry in the future.

Using the four main topics of the FDA’s new era of smarter food safety, let’s evaluate what was discussed and what I believe we could consider doing today to make an impact weeks, months, and years later.

The Ability to Improve Traceability

The first topic was Tech-enabled Traceability and Foodborne Outbreak Response. This topic was about “looking at technologies, data streams, and approaches that will greatly reduce the time it takes to trace the origin of a contaminated food.”

First, there were conversations around how to effectively facilitate end-to-end traceability. This begins with what exactly should be traced. What data is needed to make sure there is full traceability? In addition to what should be traced, who should be involved in tracing? From public to private partners, government agencies to state regulators, there has to be a way to synergize efforts to reach full traceability of food supply.

One way was to adopt new technologies that create inoperability. Blockchain is a fully automated approach to passing information from one place to another. So, for example, if a batch of romaine lettuce is harvested in a region in the southwest, technology could be implemented that captures when the batch was harvested and what steps were taken from field to facilities to truck to store to home – so if there was a foodborne illness stemming from that batch, we could pinpoint when the contamination happened and whether additional products need to be recalled.

Whether it is blockchain or another technology, the next step is to see what technologies are available, feasible, and can be developed for the industry’s specific needs. New technologies should also be used to enhance outbreak detection. We as an industry should soon have the ability to partner with data mining websites and social media platforms to help identify early signals of outbreaks.

For example, if there is an abundance of tweets regarding “food poisoning” in a concentrated area and additional information on websites, that information should help develop an early detection system that flags conditions that may be alluding to a potential outbreak. In addition, this can then be shared to help enhance response activities on a larger scale – turning into standard processes that can be shared.

Leveraging this technology allows developers to create new traceability options. Eventually, mobile applications will become commonplace and scannable labels will allow instant updates for products throughout the supply chain to better share information during recalls or outbreaks.

Smarter Ways to Approach Prevention

The second topic was Smarter Tools and Approaches for Prevention, which was about “looking at new tools, processes, and communications to inform our prevention efforts.”

Similar to the first topic, we need to start considering alternatives or enhancements that can improve our preventative measures with new ways to analyze current practices and standards to get to the root cause of food safety issues or gaps.

By creating new methodologies and training around these analytical findings, better practices can be implemented to help prevent cross-contamination, and ultimately, foodborne outbreaks.

And while the FDA already does data mining and uses AI to evaluate samples, does the future have opportunities to provide more predictive analytics?

One example of predictive analytics mentioned during the public meeting used weather patterns to see if a flood in one region of the world could increase the risk of contamination of crops.

Another example was a digital alert that would make consumers and retailers aware of a potential outbreak – which would stop sales or provide updates on potential risks. Think of it as an early warning system for at-risk foods in the same way you’d receive a severe weather notification on your mobile phone.

This innovation would also lend itself to inspection and compliance situations. Using virtual or digital audits could allow for real-time monitoring and real-time compliance checks at farms and facilities that could be seeing elevated pathogen levels.

Finally, this topic also focused on fostering communications for industry prevention efforts. How can we use enhanced communications to self-correct food safety and compliance concerns?

One way was to improve education and training by communicating about past contamination events. Knowing what happened in the past could lead to future preventative measures. And once that information is collected, it is shared publicly on forums, in reports, or in shared content that is used across the public and private sectors.

A New Business Model and Retail Modernization

The third topic was New Business Models and Retail Modernization. This topic was about “Advancing the safety of both new business models, such as e-commerce and home delivery of foods, and traditional business models, such as retail food establishments.”

E-commerce is growing. And with it, a business model that isn’t fully developed or understood. Like the similar issues with ride sharing or other “share culture” initiatives, we have to consider new ways of working, compliance, and methodologies that identify gaps in safety from the seller to the consumer.

The solution can be as simple as an agreed-upon framework, language in the modernization act, or new ways of product monitoring that ensure compliance. In addition, conversations and collaborations with food delivery companies should be arranged to ensure products are handled safely because proper standards are in place that emphasize smarter food handling.

Ideally, enhancing food safety in this new retail business model centers around owning the "last mile" of the food delivery. Important food safety concepts such as temperature control, cross-contamination, allergen control, and tamper resistance to minimize potential for adulteration should be considered.

While new business models in retail garner a lot of attention, we must not overlook traditional retail food safety in standalone establishments. One way of improving food safety in these settings is by focusing on enhanced adoption of Active Managerial Control (AMC), which the FDA defines as “the purposeful incorporation of specific actions or procedures by industry management into the operation of their business to attain control over foodborne illness risk factors.” Facilities that adopt AMC are equipped to proactively seek the prevention of food safety hazards and have been shown to be at reduced risk for foodborne illness. Enhanced rate of adoption of AMC practices will surely lead to reduced foodborne outbreaks in a New Era of Food Safety.

Food Safety Culture Improvements and Advancements

The fourth and final topic was Food Safety Culture. This topic was about “Supporting and strengthening cultures that embrace food safety within FDA, on farms, and in facilities.”

The more technology changes, guest experiences evolve, and scientific studies continue to reveal more about pathogens, the more we realize our food safety efforts can continue to improve.

With every outbreak comes new opportunities to change the way we approach pathogens – and the meeting went into great detail about how the FDA can strengthen the way we approach food safety culture and develop a change in behavior within the industry that unites the various positions.

This starts with defining what food safety culture is and making sure we all understand the key people who can help establish the culture, endorse this thinking, and exude the values of the culture.

This can range from the FDA communicating the invaluable benefits of smarter food safety to updating staff training so it becomes solidified ways of working.

Discussions of food safety culture were mostly about how inspections could become less inspection and more a learning opportunity where inspectors could gauge food safety at a location and assess and promote food safety culture.

However, food safety culture isn’t just a concept for regulators to train operators on. It’s important for industry partners to adopt a food safety culture that embraces new ways of working while also focusing on becoming a champion of food safety best practices.

By offering educational pieces, training, and tools to foster an improved culture, we can help facilities to gain a better understanding of what new steps the industry can collectively take to improve the culture and create better ways of working.

With internal and external stakeholders discussed, attention turned to consumer education. This could be the food industry’s chance to close the gap between our efforts and consumer perception by establishing ourselves as experts who are putting food safety before profitability or competitive advantages.

Full transparency could be a clear sign we are collaborating for the betterment of the industry – and the people from the beginning to the end of the food supply chain.

A New Era Starts Today

A new era of smarter food safety isn’t going to be a flip of the switch; it’ll be a continuous progression toward a common goal. Having a public meeting with some of the industry’s biggest and most dedicated thought leaders being a part of the blueprint is a positive sign. Nothing like that has occurred in the past. Collectively, those in attendance shared solutions that felt more obtainable than inaccessible.

In a room full of “what ifs” I felt encouraged the industry has just stepped over the threshold to a time when food safety becomes bigger in acknowledging there’s more work to be done, smarter in our approach to finding solutions, and safer for everyone.

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