As outbreak detectives continue to search for the root cause in an ongoing Salmonella outbreak linked to pre-cut melon, the FDA today announced a renewed effort to improve traceback processes so tainted food can be more quickly identified and removed from commerce.

With the launch of what the agency calls “A New Era of Smarter Food Safety,” Deputy Commissioner Frank Yiannas said the Food and Drug Administration should have some new tools in place within a few months, with ongoing efforts in the next couple of years resulting in major improvements.

The new era is to be driven by a “Blueprint for a New Era of Smarter Food Safety,” which the FDA hopes to unveil this year. It is not a replacement for the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA).

FDA Deputy Commissioner Frank Yiannas, left, and FDA Acting Commissioner Ned Sharpless

“(The new era will) augment our efforts implementing important FSMA requirements while also leveraging, among other things, the use of new and emerging technologies. To kick off this new focus, we intend to develop a Blueprint for a New Era of Smarter Food Safety,” according to a prepared statement released today by the Acting FDA Commissioner Ned Sharpless and Yiannas.

Yiannas, formerly the head of food safety for Walmart worldwide, said during a phone interview this morning that “this can happen quicker than people think.” The trek into the new era began with FSMA, which was signed into law in January 2011. In terms of the speed of technology, the Act became law eons ago, so some solutions are already known and have already been implemented by some in the food chain. 

Blockchain technology, for example, became mandatory for Walmart’s suppliers when Yiannas was still with the company. The requirement makes it possible for the retailer to trace the origin and shipping trail of food in a few seconds instead of more than a week.

But none of that technology and the future application of it doesn’t help the people who have already been sickened by foodborne illnesses. Yiannas said he knows that. He said that’s one of the reasons he left the private sector and went to work for the government. “It wasn’t because of the money,” he said.

Yiannas saw a good friend lose a daughter to the ravages of an E. coli O157: H7 infection. He doesn’t put that experience at the top of his remarks when giving presentations about food safety, but it has been a driving force behind his work at Walmart and now with the U.S. government.

“ ‘Smarter food safety’ isn’t just a slogan or a tagline,” Yiannas told Food Safety News today. “It’s a continuation of FSMA. Some people say the FDA is walking away from FSMA. It’s not. I’m not.”

The timing is right to apply the M in FSMA, Yiannas said. 

The food industry and food supply chain have known about technological tools and the need to improve food safety for a long time. They have known the need for “Modernization” is significant. But, Yiannas said foodborne illness outbreaks in very recent history have jolted business and industry into a new reality.

There has been a disconnect for business when it comes to their mission — profit — and the impact public health events can have on it, Yiannas said.

“We now have the technology (for effective food traceability) and recently there have been strong public health cases” that have shown corporate America that food safety has to be part of doing business.

Even though the technology is available, there still isn’t the uniformity of recordkeeping that is necessary for timely traceback when health officials identify likely sources of foodborne outbreaks. 

Yiannas says there is a great need for “traceability standards” so industry and public health investigators will have the information they need, when they need it, to track down implicated food during outbreaks and recalls.

“We don’t need new authority to advance food safety. We can do it now,” Yiannas said. “We are going to get it done 

“One foodborne illness is one too many. … I’m not lost in the data. I’m not lost in the process.”

As part of the “New Era,” the FDA plans to schedule a public meeting so consumers, those in industry and people from local, state and federal governments can provide perspectives on how to continue to build on the M in FSMA.

The date of the public meeting hasn’t been set yet, but Yiannas said it will be happening in the coming months. He also said it will be different from previous food safety public meetings that FDA has conducted in at least two ways:

He’s not going to ask about “stuff we already know” and the FDA is inviting representatives from the tech industry to tell business and government what’s possible and what’s not. Yiannas said previous FDA commissioners and deputy commissioners have his utmost respect for their work on FSMA and their efforts to pave the road to implementation. He said it is a tall order to build on their work, but he is committed to safer food for the U.S. population during the “New Era.”

The ‘New Era’
In the prepared announcement about FDA’s pursuit of the modernization of the U.S. food safety system, several key points are outlined. those are:

  • Augment efforts implementing important FSMA requirements while also leveraging, among other things, the use of new and emerging technologies;
  • Use the “Blueprint for a New Era of Smarter Food Safety.” The Blueprint will address several areas, including traceability, digital technologies, and evolving food business models;
  • Review and apply tools used by other industries that are already digitally tracking the movement of planes, ride sharing, and delivery of packaged goods — these include distributed ledgers, sensors, the Internet of Things, and artificial intelligence;
  • Review of the “last mile” in any given food’s trip to consumers’ homes, including a look at packaging materials, temperature control approaches, etc., to identify the appropriate standard of care in this rapidly growing sector.

The people driving the bus
Both Yiannas and Acting Commissioner Sharpless arrived at the FDA from careers in the private sector. Yiannas said that gives them a good perspective to make significant recommendations for the direction the agency needs to pursue its efforts to improve food safety.

Yiannas said it was rewarding to serve Walmart’s millions of customers worldwide, but he is even more driven to serve the 328 million people living in the United States. He considers the American public to be his employer, as does Sharpless.

“We both learned from working with the FDA, while on the other side of the fence, that there is a lot of industry and government — whether it’s the States or the Federal government — can do to advance food safety. Tackling food safety is a shared responsibility, and there’s much more we can do together and in a manner that benefits people, food companies, and the planet,” the two FDA administrators said in their announcement today.

“Ultimately, for our journey toward a new era of smarter food safety to be a success, all those involved in making food products available to consumers must walk in lockstep on this path. Whether you’re in the private or public sector, whether you’re at the state or federal level, we’re all working for the same bosses — American consumers — so let’s work together to keep their food safe. They’re counting on us to do so.” 

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