ROSEMONT, IL — Yesterday’s Food Safety Summit’s annual Town Hall Q&A featured top regulators and agency leaders from FDA, USDA, AFDO and CDC. They talked about their agency’s work during the past year, with a special focus on how their work has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Frank Yiannas
Deputy Commissioner
Food Policy and Response FDA
Frank Yiannas, Deputy Commissioner for Food Policy and Response at the Food and Drug Administration. Yiannas is the FDA’s top administrator to reduce food safety risks and achieve high rates of compliance with FDA food safety standards. Yiannas came to FDA from past leadership roles with Walmart and the Walt Disney Co. He has been recognized for his role in elevating food safety standards and building effective food safety management systems based on modern science and risk-based prevention principles.

New Era of Smarter Food Safety
Yiannas spoke about the FDA’s “Blueprint for the Future.” But, he started with thanking everyone who works in the food industry.

“I’d like to salute the heroism of workers at all points of the food supply chain who have not been able to stay home, to shelter in place.” Yiannas said that he has been impressed by how the industry has responded during the pandemic. “Through it all our food supply has been remarkably resilient.” 

He shared some of the highlights coming from the FDA’s plan, the New Era of Smarter Food Safety:

Tech-enabled Traceability

  • Proposed Food Traceability Rule
  • Harmonize the information and data needed for enhanced traceability.
  • Food Traceability List
  • Lays the foundation for end-to-end traceability

Smarter Tool and Approaches for prevention

  • Using AI to prevent violative imported foods from entering commerce. 
  • Yiannas says that technological advances have enabled the FDA to improve predictive models and apprehend violations before they happen. For example, “We have increased our (the FDA’s) predictive ability by 300% as to which containers could have violations.”

New Business Models and Retail Modernization

The FDA is modernizing by adapting to new trends.

  • Online grocery shopping is likely to increase by 20 percent within the next few years.
  • One survey reports that 31 percent of U.S. households are already using online grocery services.

Food Safety = Behavior

Yiannas stressed that the FDA must get better at implementing the science and research that is being discovered.

  • Behavioral Science Principles
  • Social Marketing Plan
  • Measure Culture and Behavior

Progress on Produce Safety

Lastly, Yiannas listed the improvements and work the FDA has done recently but stressed that there is more to do because, as he said, “One foodborne illness is too many.”

  • Outbreak Investigations
  • 2020 Leafy Green Action Plan
  • EPA-Registered Agricultural Water Treatments
  • Proposed Agricultural Water Rule
  • Food Safety Partnership with Mexico
  • Papaya Action Plan
  • Cyclospora Advancements

Steven Mandernach
Executive Director
Association of Food and Drug Officials AFDO
Steven Mandernach is the Executive Director for the Association of Food and Drug Officials (AFDO). Mandernach spent his session time talking about COVID-19’s effect on the regulatory community.

“The first thing to note, is that there is a dramatic reduction in the amount of inspections.” Mandernach said he sees this trend continuing for the foreseeable future, or as the long as the pandemic is still an issue.

Mandernach explained that funding and workers are being removed or moved to help with COVID-19. That means that these regulatory entities can do less as they have less resources to do them.

“We know across the U.S there have been virtual inspections,” Mandernach said. He sees this as a possible long term change in inspections as a result of COVID-19, and growing option as they are much safer for the inspectors until the pandemic has passed. Inspectors are still thinking about ways to shorten their time in manufacturing plants. 

New Era of Smarter Food Safety: Retail Modernization
Mandernach stressed the CDC data that 75 percent of outbreaks originate in retail food locations, showing how imperative it is that we improve food safety at retail. “It’s time for a comprehensive look at the programs,” Mandernach said, referring to how retail food safety is antiquated. 

Another point Mandernach made is the small workforce that has had to shoulder regulatory work.

“I think COVID-19, has highlighted how small the staff is that works with these programs. In retail foods we have huge amounts of new technology and techniques in this industry.” Mandernach used the growth of technology as another example of why retail food safety needs to adapt. 

New Era of Smarter Food Safety and AFDO

New Business Models
Like Yiannas explained, the regulation needs to change because of the way consumers get their food is changing, “These things are really exploding,” Mandernach said, citing services like online grocery shopping, Doordash,Ubereats, and more. “We have to rethink how people are getting their food.” 

As new delivery entities emerge, Mandernach explained that regulatory agencies need to retool to deal with them. “We might not have the regulatory structure we need.”

Robert Tauxe
Director covering prevention and control of foodborne, waterborne and fungal infections
Center for Disease Control
Tauxe explains that “The pandemic is definitely effort No. 1 at the CDC.” He explained how this has left certain CDC Divisions short staffed.

He also talked about how their agency was making great strides before COVID-19 hit. “The number of strains being reported to PulseNet, say, of Salmonella, dropped sharply,” Tauxe explained. Data intake fell sharply as the number of sick people coming into the hospital with foodborne illness fell. People were instead using telemedicine, preferring to not go into the hospital.

People stopped going to the doctor. The surveillance numbers for 2020 will have a coronavirus shaped asterisk on it.

Paul Kiecker
Deputy Administrator
USDA/ Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS)
Paul Kiecker was named Administrator for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) in February 2020. From May 2018 through February 2020, Kiecker was the Agency’s Deputy Administrator. The FSIS is the public health agency in the USDA that’s responsible for verifying that meat, poultry, and processed egg products are safe, wholesome, and accurately labeled.

Kiecker focused on how the FSIS the achieving mission during COVID-19:

  • The agency’s response has been to make sure our employees stay safe and healthy and able to perform their FSIS tasks.
  • They are working to modernize inspection systems, policies and use of scientific approaches. Part of that is asking, “can we do this better?”
  • The role of FSIS is to verify that firms are following regulation.
  • They are working to incorporate emerging science and technology into inspection processes.
  • They are always trying to learn more through nationally representative surveys, focus groups and observational experiments.

(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here)