FDA Announces New Era of Smarter Food Safety

The agency’s blueprint outlines its plans to create a more digital, traceable and safer food safety system. 

July 16, 2020

By Chris Blasinsky

WASHINGTON—Following a five-month delay due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced its New Era of Smarter Food Safety Blueprint this week.

FDA Commissioner Stephen M. Hahn M.D. noted in a recorded statement that in the months since COVID-19, “it has become even clearer—from our experiences with the pandemic and the lessons we have been learning as part of the FDA’s response to it—just how essential the actions outlined in this blueprint are and, if anything, that they are more important now, than ever.”

The New Era of Smarter Food Safety Blueprint encompasses four core elements: 

  1. Tech-enabled traceability

Ultimately, the FDA’s goal is to have end-to-end traceability throughout the food safety system. Today, records involved with moving food through the supply chain create an inefficient and costly paper trail, and the blueprint proposes tapping into new technologies like AI and machine learning and blockchain, and integrating data streams to identify outbreaks and trace the origin of a contaminated food to its source in minutes—or even seconds—instead of months.

“We want to explore ways to encourage companies to adopt tracing technologies and also to harmonize efforts to follow food from farm to table,” said Dr. Hahn. “We should strive to speak the same language, by espousing similar data standards across government and industry for tracking and tracing a food product.” 

  1. Smarter tools and approaches for prevention and outbreak response

By enhancing and strengthening root cause analyses and predictive analytics, the blueprint seeks to build on existing efforts and partner with states that have comparable regulatory and public health systems and leverage each other’s data to maximize overall food safety reach. This could also include reliable third-party audits to advance food safety.

“One of our most important resources we have today lies in our ability to unleash the power of data,” said Dr. Hahn. “The plans embraced by the blueprint include strengthening our procedures and protocols for conducting the root cause analyses that can identify how a food became contaminated and inform our understanding of how to help prevent that from happening again.” 

  1. New business models and retail modernization

As the food retail industry continues to innovate how food is produced and distributed, the blueprint seeks a course of action that would ensure food safety for new business models. This need for proper food handling has been heightened during the pandemic with the surge of online grocery shopping and third-party food delivery services like Grubhub and DoorDash. Working with regulatory partners and a broad array of stakeholders, the FDA is proposing to convene a new food business model summit to identify future courses of action to address potential food safety vulnerabilities.

“FDA research shows the importance of supporting practices in retail establishments known to reduce the risk of food contamination, such as proper handwashing and storing foods at the right temperature. We’re committed to exploring new approaches of food safety that go beyond traditional training and inspection,” said Dr. Hahn. 

  1. Food safety culture

Noting that a strong food safety culture is necessary for effective food safety management, the blueprint proposes the development of a social marketing plan to strengthen a culture of food safety in the establishments the agency regulates and in turn, influence and sustain widespread safe-food behavior changes. The plan takes a step further outside of the retail food space by encouraging influencers like chefs, bloggers, cooking shows, celebrities and industry leaders to model desired safe-food behaviors and make smarter food safety part of the national dialogue and social norm.

“The pandemic has given us a new perspective on what we mean by food safety culture,” said Dr. Hahn, adding that making dramatic reductions in foodborne disease will require changes in human behavior, as well as addressing how employees think about food safety and how they demonstrate their commitment to safe food handling practices in the workplace.

The blueprint builds on the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), designed to advance food safety and prevent foodborne illnesses by using science and risk-based standards. “The authority granted by FSMA enables a flexible framework that is adaptable to the changing food environment as science and technologies evolve,” said Dr. Hahn, adding that the blueprint is the next stage in this process.

To receive updates on the FDA’s progress and developments, go to fda.gov/smarterfoodsafety and click on the link for e-mail updates. Also, download the New Era for Smarter Food Safety Blueprint.

Chris Blasinsky is the NACS content communications strategist; she can be reached at cblasinsky@convenience.org, and on Twitter and LinkedIn.