(This article by Tom Karst, national editor of The Packer, was first published Aug. 26, 2014, and is reposted here with permission.) The U.S. Food and Drug and Administration’s new food safety regulations aren’t the only changes facing fresh produce marketers, but the coming rules likely will be the most far-reaching, Robert Brackett believes. In a talk called, “Food Safety Issues on the Horizon: Thinking Differently,” Brackett, a former FDA official and now vice president and director of the Institute for Food Safety and Health at the Illinois Institute of Technology, spoke to attendees of the U.S. Apple Association’s Apple Crop Outlook and Marketing Conference on Aug. 22 in Chicago.

Robert Brackett
Besides new food safety legislation and regulation in the U.S. and other countries, Brackett identified macro changes that include globalization of food trade and production, a rising world population, climate change, diminished land availability, urbanization, global economic shifts and instant communication. The fallout from these changes will bring increased imports of food, a need for standardized regulations between countries, more biotechnology, higher food prices and increased chances of fraud, he said. Brackett said economic growth in developing countries will fuel rising consumer expectations and stronger demand for fruits and vegetables, meat and processed foods. Changes in developed countries, including the U.S., include aging populations, increased reliance on medicine and the emergence of chronic conditions that could lead to health issues such as obesity, heart disease and diabetes, he said. This means a substantial part of the U.S. population is at risk from problems with the safety of the food supply. “At least 20 percent to 25 percent of the population is at risk and should watch what is in their foods,” he said. At-risk populations include the very young, the very old, those taking medicines and others who may be allergic to food. Brackett said that 17 percent of the U.S. population is 60 or older, and 4 percent of the population is 80 years old or older. Nearly two-thirds of the population is overweight, and 44 percent of Americans are taking one or more prescription medicines. New tools online New epidemiological tools will help identify pathogens, and scientists will be able to trace foodborne illness outbreaks easier, he said. “We will have tools to allow FDA and (the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) to find out where outbreaks occur much more accurately and sooner than they have in the past,” he said. Brackett said researchers will have new molecular testing tools, which will allow better attribution of where problems exist. Next-generation genome sequencing will allow scientists to take a bacterium sample and complete the sequence of the whole genome quickly and cheaply. That type of test used to take as long as a year, but now Brackett says it costs about $100 and several tests can be completed in a day. The technology will allows scientists, for example, to isolate the place on a packing line where a food safety problem was introduced, he said. “It is a level of resolution we have never had before on foodborne pathogens,” he said. In the future, handheld equipment for genome sequencing of pathogens may be common, he added. Another reality of today’s world is consumer engagement in social media, Brackett said. Whereas the public response to Alar on apples was significant in 1989, a similar event in 2014 would be much more magnified because of social media, he said. “The response would be in hours, not days or months,” he said. Misinformation could also be multiplied by false reports on social media, he said. Brackett also noted the growth of private-label foods by retailers, Brackett said. Those situations will cause suppliers and retailers to look at mutually dependent partnership arrangements, he said. “If there is a foodborne illness issue, you both could go down,” he said. Private audit standards higher than government standards are also continuing to be imposed on suppliers, he said. The Global Food Safety Initiative aims for a harmonized set of standards across the globe, he said, though acceptance of that standard is not universal. Food safety systems are under review and change is happening not only in the U.S., but also in China, New Zealand and Canada. Food safety expectations With the Food Safety Modernization Act, Brackett said FDA is supposed to have a partnership with the industry. The new regulations will have a broad prevention mandate and accountability for food suppliers, he said. “You have to be accountable to FDA inspections that you have prevented something from happening,” he noted. Imports will have an oversight that is much stricter than in the past. “Something that was always stated — farm-to-table food safety — it truly is farm-to-table food safety responsibility because we will have FDA investigators on the farm,” Brackett said. Brackett said “preventive controls” regulations require firms such as fresh-cut apple processors to employ good manufacturing practices. “I call it HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point) on steroids because these preventive controls are much broader than you have had in the past,” he said. Eventually, the preventive control regulation may require supplier verification for domestic suppliers, just as FDA will require for import suppliers. The produce safety rule — applicable to apple growers — will address firms that grow , harvest, pack and hold produce. The regulations will include requirements about water quality, sanitation of equipment, standards for soil amendments and risks posed by specific processes and commodities, he said. Brackett said the produce safety rule will make it much more difficult for companies which may grow a variety of commodities. The one part of food safety regulations with the most teeth, Brackett said, is records access for investigators. Certain records must be available to government investigators upon request, he said. The rules under the Foreign Supplier Verification Program will have a big effect on the industry, he said. The regulation will put the responsibility on importers to confirm that fresh produce imports are grown with the same safety standards as in the U.S. “The importer of record must prove that to investigators,” he said. FDA will employ a computer program to help the agency decide which categories of imported food will receive the most scrutiny, he said. Implications for fresh produce suppliers are several, Brackett said. Companies must develop food safety plans and be able to prove to FDA that procedures are in place to reduce the risk of foodborne illness. The industry will be asked to get ahead of possible food safety issues, to figure out what could go wrong and prevent it from occurring. “Ultimately, hopefully there will be safer food and more confidence in the regulatory system and the food industry,” Brackett said. Brackett said private audit standards will become more important. After he spoke, one apple shipper asked if the number of third-party audits could be reduced through harmonization. “It’s moving that way, but I think it will be quite some time before we get a harmonized audit system,” Brackett said.