GENEVA — A lack of transparency is the Achilles heel of food safety, according to the deputy commissioner for food policy and response at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Frank Yiannas said there has been a three-decade exercise for traceability from centralized databases to technologies such as blockchain and, despite the sector being largely impressive, there is still a lot of anonymity.

Yiannas spoke during the “Digitalization and Its Impact on Food Safety and Trade” session at the International Forum on Food Safety and Trade at the World Trade Organization (WTO) headquarters in Geneva during the last week of April.

The former Walmart vice president of global food safety described a sliced mango pilot project that involved tracing a package back to its source. This took six days, 18 hours, and 26 minutes. Using software the retailer developed with IBM, the same task took 2.2 seconds.

“It is about the value chain, the farm-to-table continuum and shared value for everyone. The promise of this technology is many people can benefit. Small farmers have told me if there is a food safety incident everybody’s product is guilty so it can help clear their name and solve how they never get to talk to the consumer. The processor benefit is shelf life at the retailer,” he said.

Look at the challenge to be solved
There are two barriers to participation, according to Yiannas, the technology hurdle and cost of entry.

Photo by Joe Whitworth

“We don’t want a digital divide. When using any technology, focus on the business or public health challenge you are trying to solve. Understand the technology to pick the right one. It is happening so get involved and shape it in a way that benefits people. It needs to benefit the smallest stakeholders or else it will fail. If global food safety is more connected we might avoid an ineffective food system, which is costly. The lack of good traceability costs the food system,” he said.

Professor Simon Cook from Curtin University and Murdoch University said digitalization is already here, but there is an issue scaling up pilot studies.

“The models are there for analyzing data – these processes are feasible but technology costs money,” Cook said. “If we are expecting to engage farmers in the process we need to identify how the value gets back to them and how are they rewarded for producing a right product. How do producers learn to generate the right product? How do institutions help govern these processes?”

Lynn Frewer, professor of food and society at Newcastle University, said digitalization offers technical advances and can engage stakeholders across geographies while complementing traditional methods.

“The interactive element allows for identification of emerging food risks. Citizen science can be adapted to understand what people are worried about,” Frewer said. “The public uses social media to discuss food safety issues that are not reported to authorities. Not all social media discussion is factual and risk can be used for economic damage to the supply chain. Not everyone can access the internet or has smartphones so we risk creating a digital underclass that cannot receive information, what happens in a crisis if the internet goes down?”

Frewer said small farmers can be alienated by digital processes and traditional cultural practices may be compromised.

“For the ageing agricultural workforce it is difficult to learn new things. It is not only about monetization but feedback from consumers. There is the issue of social exclusion: farmers and consumers being excluded from the digital revolution. Consumers have a distrust of the food system and how they are governed. What information do we want to give to people and what information do people want, then they are more likely to believe and trust it,” she said.

Another technology, whole genome sequencing (WGS), is helping find the source of contamination in foodborne illness outbreaks, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

While cost is decreasing not all countries can adopt it. Laboratory infrastructure and capacities for performing such analysis can be lacking, especially in developing countries.

FAO runs an informal network of developing nations to share information, knowledge and experience using WGS for food safety management. As of August 2018, 17 countries were participating.

How the Singapore Food Agency handles imports
France Pégeot, executive vice president at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, said one out of eight jobs in country involves the food trade.

She gave an overview of the Safe Food for Canadians Regulations (SFCR) which came into force in January this year. Pégeot was speaking at the second session of the event in Geneva on synergies between food safety and trade facilitation.

Photo by Joe Whitworth

Tan Lee Kim, director-general, of the food administration and deputy chief executive officer at the Singapore Food Agency, said the country imports 90 percent of its food from 180 countries.

“The main challenge is availability of international standards as they take a while to be set or are not available. If international standards are not available, look at regional standards or take Codex principles and Asian standards. For Impossible Foods plant-based vegan burger there were no standards, we did our own risk assessment. Risk assessments must be done right before a new product is in the market. We need to encourage the food industry to share what it is doing and the science behind technology,” she said.

Kim said the agency has no presence at border checks and works with other agencies. SFA began work on April 1 this year joining food-related functions of the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority of Singapore, National Environment Agency and Health Sciences Authority.

“What can you do before and after the border? Risk profiling helps work out upstream the food safety policy, find risks and target measures in that area. Accreditation of sources, be transparent in requirements, virtual assistance and work with the custom’s agency. Then you stop imports at source so they don’t get stuck at our borders. Post-border, focus inspection on high SPS food products, those with a history of non-compliance or new products,” she said.

Anthony Huggett, head of quality management for Nestlé, said there is a huge amount of data that industry possesses which is not shared with others in the sector or regulators.

“Nestlé has data on chemical and microbiological surveillance. We generate one million analytical results of which 250,000 are on chemical contaminants in different material. We are not sharing as we should be but how do we create an environment that industry can share to prevent incidents occurring? The private sector has an important role to play, it is key we bring along small players and always focus on the consumer first,” he said.

Huggett, who is also a board member of the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI), said it is important to get the timeframe yet when responding to emerging issues.

“If Codex reacts too quickly we can create issues but being late means some countries have introduced regulations and this can create trade barriers,” Huggett said. “Food contact materials are not being addressed, there are differences in how Listeria is regulated and there are regulations in Europe on acrylamide and nanomaterials but not in other parts of the world.”

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