The FDA’s 2011 Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) has been transforming the U.S. food safety system, with ongoing implementation creating continuing implications for every segment of the produce supply chain. An increasing consumer focus on transparency is converging with a shifting regulatory environment – a scenario that should have food companies quickly assessing what impacts to their business this environment may produce.
Increased Food Recall Incidents
Food recalls seem to occur with increasing frequency in recent years. A recent report from the Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) confirms this is the case and argues that health officials should be doing more to protect the U.S. food supply. According to the PIRG report, the total number of food recalls has increased by 10% since 2013. Specifically, Class I recalls – the most serious recalls, involving a “reasonable probability” that consumption of the food could lead to health problems – of meat and poultry rose by 83 percent.
The cause of this increase is no doubt multifactorial and may be due in part to the FSMA and better detection and monitoring. But some argue that relaxed policy under the current administration could be at play. There may also be a possible mismatch between the increased complexity of food production and existing regulatory frameworks. Also, an increasing number of produce crops either border or are being grown on the same farms as animals, which increases risks of cross-contamination.
Given the increased rate of food recalls a spotlight is shining on the issue of whether there should be increased regulation in the food safety space. In January of this year, the Pew Trusts’ Sandra Eskin said the two recalls of romaine lettuce highlighted the need for the FDA to move swiftly to implement water contamination testing rules.
A Ripe Regulatory Environment
The 2011 Food Safety Modernization Act directed FDA to reform its food safety regulations. The agency issued a final rule in 2015 that gave growers until early this year, rolling into 2022, to test water quality. But the FDA delayed implementing the rule last year.
“FDA must end these delays and promptly finish any revisions to the initial water standard,” Pew’s Eskin said.
When serving as FDA Commissioner last year, Dr. Scott Gottlieb said he was having the agency investigate better ways to use technology to monitor food from farm to table so that outbreaks don’t take weeks or months to trace. The PIRG report supports this and urges FDA to move quickly. “It could take weeks to locate the source of an outbreak in something like fruit and vegetables by which time dozens of people could have gotten sick because the food is perishable,” the report reads.
The FDA recently announced it will hold a public meeting on October 21, 2019 for comment on “A New Era of Smarter Food Safety.” According to the meeting announcement, “The input received at this meeting, and in comments submitted to the accompanying Federal Register docket, will help shape an FDA Blueprint for a New Era of Smarter Food Safety. We intend for the strategic plan to outline how this new approach will address public health challenges, including being able to trace sources of contaminated foods and using new predictive analytics tools like artificial intelligence to assess risks and prioritize the agency’s work and resources.” The docket will be open through November 20, 2019, so stakeholders should submit their comments accordingly.
The FDA’s strategic blueprint, slated for early 2020, will outline the agency’s plans to leverage technology to increase safety in the food system. “This work will build on the advances that have been and are being made in FDA’s implementation of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) while advancing the use of technologies that are currently used in society and business sectors all around us, such as blockchain, sensor technology, the Internet of Things, and artificial intelligence.” Internal working groups will be focusing on several priorities, including tech-enabled traceability and foodborne outbreak response, as well as strengthening food safety culture.
Food Safety and Emerging Technology
As we discussed earlier this year, the smart use of artificial intelligence can take food companies a long way toward increasing quality and reducing the likelihood of food recalls. Additionally, software platforms like FoodLogiQ, can cut the time and costs associated with a recall by tracking critical food location events with a visualization of the supply chain. Indeed, the FDA may even mandate such technologies that increase traceability throughout the supply chain.
Regardless of the regulatory environment, it has become imperative that food safety be among the top priorities for all food companies. The heightened scrutiny and uncertainty that comes with a swiftly-changing regulatory schema makes food safety compliance efforts all the more essential.