Speech by Frank Yiannas, Deputy Commissioner for Food Policy and Response – Food and Drug Administration
(Remarks as prepared for delivery)
I am honored to be invited by the World Health Organization (WHO) to address the importance of the digitalization of the food system in our work to protect consumers in all our nations from foodborne illness.
This topic is particularly timely because today, June 7, is World Food Safety Day and the theme is “Safer Food, Better Health.” Truer words were never spoken. Food is not food if it’s not safe and food is essential for life.
Every year, it becomes clearer that we must stand together as nations to help keep people all over the world safe and healthy. In an interconnected, global food system, when it comes to food safety, we all win or lose together.
The world is changing rapidly. I heard a quote recently that resonated with me: “The pace of change has never been this fast, yet it will never be this slow again.”
Part of this rapid change is that data and information have become more digitized and can be shared at the speed of thought. And new and emerging technologies are increasingly taking big and real-time data and putting it to good use. For example, advances in artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, sensor technologies, and blockchain are improving business processes. And the food system is reshaping itself, using these technologies, to meet the expanding global supply chain and the changing needs of consumers.
At the same time, food safety is evolving to meet the challenges and opportunities of these modern times. New digital technologies offer the potential to help us predict and prevent food safety problems and better detect and respond to problems when they do occur.
Tomorrow, June 8th, I am participating in WHO’s Health Talks on Food Safety, conversations with experts from all over the world on new and emerging issues. My topic is “Bending the Curve of Foodborne Illness in a Digital World.” I’d like to tell you about the work FDA is doing to bend that curve – once and for all — through our implementation of the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act and the goals we’ve set in the New Era of Smarter Food Safety to build on FSMA with a more digital and traceable food system.
The importance of food traceability to food safety is obvious. While people often think that food traceability is simply a reactive tool, nothing could be further from the truth. In the event of a foodborne outbreak, better traceability leads to better safety by enabling rapid traceback to the source of a contaminated food, speeding recalls of potentially contaminated products, and better fueling the root cause analyses that can help prevent such contamination instances from happening again.
But the benefits of better food traceability go beyond food safety. During the pandemic, it also became clear that traceability will also create the transparency needed to anticipate and help prevent supply chain disruptions in a public health emergency, such as a pandemic or food supply chain challenges.
It can help FDA and industry anticipate and help prevent the kind of market imbalances and food waste we saw when food producers lost customers in restaurants, schools, and other entities impacted by the pandemic.
Traceability is a priority under both FSMA and the New Era of Smarter Food Safety. FSMA mandated a rule that lays out additional recordkeeping requirements for enhanced traceability of certain foods.
Our work continues on finalizing the Food Traceability Rule that FDA proposed in the fall of 2020 and the proposed list of foods for which records would have to contain key data elements associated with different critical tracking events. We anticipate issuing the final rule in November.
One of the goals in the New Era blueprint is to help ensure that tracing solutions are cost effective for food operations of all sizes. In June 2021, FDA launched the Low- or No-Cost Tech-Enabled Traceability Challenge to encourage the development of traceability systems that use low- to no-cost economic models. We received 90 submissions from around the world and chose 12 winning teams representing the U.S., Canada, and New Zealand.
But our work didn’t end with the selection of winners. We are now actively working to disseminate these ideas – from the winners and other teams that entered the challenge – to the stakeholders who need them most.
Unleashing the power of digital data is an overarching goal in FDA’s work to modernize food safety. A good example is FDA’s use of a data analysis tool we developed called 21 Forward, which is playing a key role now in monitoring the infant formula supply chain. 21 Forward is a tool that was developed and used to track the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on FDA-regulated facilities in the food supply chain.
The tool helped the FDA identify where risks for interruptions in the continuity of the food supply may be the greatest because of the pandemic. We were also able to supply state public health officials coordinating COVID-19 vaccination efforts with information on the number and location of FDA-regulated food facilities and the number of food and agriculture sector workers at those facilities.
FDA also partnered with other federal agencies to incorporate data on farms and farm workers, as well as meat, poultry, and egg processing facilities. This data helped state and local officials determine how many food and agriculture workers they have in their communities and quickly identify where these essential workers are located.
Today, we are using 21 Forward to aggregate and analyze multiple data sets to help monitor the infant formula supply and help us focus on areas of greatest need. Analyzing high volumes of data is enabled by the scalability of this platform. This in turn has helped guide discussions with industry on how to increase production of various types of infant formulas. Once again, our belief that a digital food system will be a smarter food system is being realized as we use FDA’s 21 Forward platform to manage current challenges with infant formula availability.
More Quality and Digitized Data, Better Food Safety
Better food safety begins and ends with better data. In the 21st century we increasingly have the ability to convert large volumes of data into powerful predictive and preventive information.
The New Era of Smarter Food Safety blueprint includes multiple goals that have to do with utilizing additional sources of data, improving data quality, and exploring platforms that facilitate the sharing of data and information.
These include increasing the amount and quality of data FDA has through expanded use of information-sharing agreements with regulatory and public health partners, academic institutions, industry, and others. One of the ways we’re doing that is through the domestic mutual reliance agreements signed with five states – California, Florida, Minnesota, Utah, and Wisconsin. Data exchange and information sharing are important parts of these agreements.
We’re also exploring methods to create public-private “data trusts” generated by industry that can be leveraged for analytical work to further strengthen preventive approaches. The Food Safety Data Sharing Project established last year by Western Growers on the safety of fresh leafy greens is a great example of work that will strengthen predictive capabilities and inform risk-management decisions.
When we look at how other industries are harnessing the power of data to identify and predict trends, it is clear that the FDA and food producers should also be looking at ways to tap robust, high quality data sources to strengthen our predictive analytics.
We are also exploring how to incorporate modern tools and approaches like artificial intelligence and machine learning to prevent or mitigate food safety issues. Specifically, we are continuing to explore the use of artificial intelligence, specifically machine learning, in a pilot designed to strengthen our ability to predict which shipments of imported seafood pose the greatest risk of violation. Initial findings suggested that machine learning could greatly increase the likelihood of identifying a shipment containing potentially contaminated products.
Doubling or tripling the ability to predict which shipments potentially are violative through the screening process is expected to result in much more effective utilization of resources to examine, sample, and test products at the port of entry.
Foodborne Outbreak Response Improvement Plan
The goals we’ve set in the blueprint for a New Era of Smarter Food Safety leverage new and evolving technologies, tools, and approaches. This includes our work to respond to foodborne outbreaks faster and revealing the root cause, which is essential for the prevention of future outbreaks. And we have a plan to do just that.
In December, FDA released its New Era of Smarter Food Safety Foodborne Outbreak Response Improvement Plan to improve the speed, effectiveness, and coordination of outbreak investigations.
Observations by and recommendations from FDA leadership and staff across the foods program played a key role in the plan’s development. It was also informed by an independent review by the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health that examined FDA’s structural and functional capacity to support, participate in, or lead multistate foodborne illness outbreak investigation activities.
The importance of moving towards a more digital response is clear. The plan is divided into priority areas that include tech-enabled product traceback, and analysis and dissemination of outbreak data.
Following the publication of our plan, we held a webinar on April 13th to answer stakeholder questions and listen to feedback about the plan, and there was a tremendous response. More than 1,700 people in the public and private sectors from 45 countries registered and more than 2,000 have viewed the webinar on YouTube.
The Power of Data
I’d like to close with this thought. In a global food system, if foodborne disease exists somewhere in the world, it can exist anywhere in the world. This is a shared responsibility. It’s not just the job of one nation, one industry, or one government agency.
But how can we do this, together? Well, it involves continued modernization and change. Think about this. The 20th Century was known as the industrial age. But the 21st Century is the data and digital age. Working together, we can unleash the power of data and truly bend the curve of foodborne illness in all nations, so that people worldwide can live better lives.
This has been the promise of World Food Safety Day since it was launched in 2019 by WHO and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. So, let’s work together to make every day a world food safety day. After all, safer food means better health for all of us.