If hindsight’s 20/20, and if Barbara Walters co-hosted 20/20, what are the odds that 2020’s crystal ball will show a clear picture of the year ahead? Who knows. I just had to get the 20/20 jokes out of the way.

Now down to the stuff that’s no laughing matter — the direction food safety is likely to take this year.

Several of the usual suspects are back on the predictable list for 2020, and we’ve got a couple of suggestions on other things to watch for in the coming months. By no means a comprehensive list, the below is in no particular order.

It’s a simple concept, but one of the biggest challenges facing regulators, public health officials and businesses. The elusive component of commerce known as traceability is expected to remain unnecessarily at arm’s length.

Industry hasn’t done it when it comes to adopting uniform labeling and recordkeeping. Regulators haven’t forced the issue. Public health officials are stuck in a tangle of red tape and a snarl of incomplete and inaccessible shipping and receiving records when they are trying to trace the sources of foodborne illness outbreaks.

Here’s hoping Frank Yiannas can do what he said he was going to do in 2019. Yiannas is the Food and Drug Administration’s deputy commissioner for food policy and response. In early 2019 he promised “smarter” food safety with a more digital, traceable footprint. The agency floundered along with the helping hand of the food industry as outbreak investigations continued to be hampered by a fuzzy and sometimes blind view of the food supply chain.

With outbreaks ongoing as the calendar closes out on 2019 and opens on 2020, it seems little if any progress has been made with the problem of E. coli contaminated romaine lettuce. Unfortunately romaine is making consecutive appearances in the annual likely list — and not in a good way. 

The proximity of feedlots, also referred to as “concentrated animal feeding operations” (CAFOs), to fresh produce fiends, including romaine fields, continues to appear to be a known missing link in the contamination chain.

See also “traceability” for a key factor in the ongoing threat from romaine lettuce. Part of the romaine game is timing. Harvest season rotates between the Yuma, AZ, area and the Salinas, CA, area. There are few weeks of overlap every time the harvest areas switch. Industry has successfully distracted consumers and government from the real issues by pointing the finger at the other region.

Turkey and Salmonella
An investigation into a 2018 outbreak linked to turkey saw investigators confirm “widespread” contamination in the industry with the outbreak strain found at multiple locations.

Poultry industry leaders immediately said they would begin researching how to mitigate the issue and report back ASAP. 

Government regulators said they would hold industry to its word.

As 2020 begins we are still waiting on both to make good. Hopefully this hasn’t fallen off the radar and will be locked in for this year’s agenda.

FSMA — tha mantra continues
Pronounced fizz-ma, the abbreviation FSMA stands for Food Safety Modernization Act. It has been tripping off the tongue since well before it was signed into law in January 2011. It gives the FDA a lot of responsibility and some power.

The federal legislation sets a particular focus on fresh produce. Some say if water testing standards planned under FSMA would have been implemented instead of delayed at the request of industry, problems like the romaine outbreaks would have been much less likely.

Although several key elements of FSMA have been delayed, some are coming into focus in 2020 and promise to make a few headlines. One of those areas involves tree fruit, according to Trevor Suslow, vice president of food safety at  the Produce Marketing Association. 

The tree fruit industry will experience a number of FDA-483 Inspectional Observation warning letters resulting from FSMA inspections related to Listeria and insufficient Listeria environmental-monitoring programs, Suslow told ”Growing Produce” in recent days. 

USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service
When it comes to government agencies, its sometimes best to listen and then monitor. That’s the approach for 2020 as far as the FSIS is concerned. 

The agency has provided its focus areas. All we have to do is wait and watch. The USDA’s sub-agency says:

  • FSIS will finalize rules proposed in 2019, including the Egg Products Inspection Regulations rule.
  • FSIS developed a plan in 2019 to expand testing for non-O157 STEC to all FSIS regulated beef products. FSIS will propose this expanded testing and request comments on the plans before finalizing them during FY 2020.
  • FSIS will also continue to focus on food safety modernization, including:
    • Exploring improvements to beef slaughter inspection;
    • Expanding the chemical residue surveillance program;
    • Revising performance standards for Campylobacter in comminuted chicken and turkey products based on a method change; and
    • Proposing performance standards for Salmonella in raw pork cuts and raw comminuted pork products.

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