FDA this week announced an initiative to enhance the agency’s ability to protect the nation’s food supply.
FDA’s “New Era of Smarter Food Safety Blueprint” is focused on improved traceability in response to outbreaks, leveraging “new data streams,” evaluating “new business models for the production and delivery of food,” and strengthening “food safety culture,” FDA commissioner Stephen Hahn, M.D., said in a June 13 statement.
FDA planned to announce the food safety initiative in March, but the COVID-19 pandemic diverted its attention.
The blueprint builds on FDA’s work through its implementation of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), Hahn said. Signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2011, FSMA reflects a focus on preventing—rather than responding to—foodborne illness.
“FSMA has been a centerpiece of our work to help ensure food safety and prevent foodborne illnesses through the use of science and risk-based standards,” Hahn explained. “The authority granted by FSMA enables a flexible framework that is adaptable to the changing food environment as science and technologies evolve.”
Hahn said the new initiative “represents the next stage in this process—a commitment we are making to the American people that we will work as fast and effectively as we can to help ensure that we have the safest food system in the world.”
The first core element of the blueprint is focused on “tech-enabled traceability,” which the pandemic highlighted “has utility beyond our response to outbreaks of foodborne illness,” Hahn said.
FDA has faced challenges over the years dealing with “recurring outbreaks of illnesses” tied to certain ingested foods, the commissioner acknowledged. This problem highlights “the critical importance of the FDA working with industry so that we can rapidly trace a contaminated food to its source,” Hahn said. “And when I say rapidly, I mean minutes, not days, weeks, or even longer.”
The second element of the blueprint is focused on leveraging “new data streams,” said Hahn, who added FDA wants to obtain higher-quality data, more meaningfully analyze it, and “transform streams of data into more meaningful, strategic and prevention-oriented actions.” He announced a pilot program that will use artificial intelligence and machine learning to bolster FDA’s review of imported foods to help confirm they meet U.S. food safety standards.
“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. “It would save an immense amount of time, and potentially lives.”
Other components of the blueprint, Hahn announced, include an evaluation of “new business models” regarding how food is produced and delivered, as well as an effort to strengthen “food safety culture on farms and in food facilities all over the world.”
“New business models include novel ways of producing foods and ingredients, such as cell-cultured food products, and we plan to take a close look at these,” Hahn said. “We intend to ensure that as food technology evolves, our oversight evolves along with it, to help ensure food safety.”
COVID-19, Hahn divulged, has given FDA “a new perspective on what we mean by food safety culture.”
To drastically reduce disease caused by food, “we must do more to influence and change human behavior, as well as to address how employees think about food safety, and how they demonstrate their commitment to this as part of their jobs,” the commissioner said. “But a strong culture of food safety involves more than this. It’s also about keeping those food workers safe and about educating consumers, who are cooking more at home these days, on safe food handling practices.”