By: Frank Yiannas, Deputy Commissioner for Food Policy and Response
When the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced the New Era of Smarter Food Safety initiative in April 2019 and then released the blueprint in July 2020 outlining our goals, we put both in the context of doing our work differently, leveraging new and emerging technologies and approaches to create a safer and more digital, traceable food system.
We are taking two steps forward to do just that, working differently to enhance food traceability and support the use of technology to strengthen the food safety system.
Today, June 1, we launch The FDA New Era of Smarter Food Safety Low- or No-Cost Tech-enabled Traceability Challenge, asking stakeholders, including technology providers, entrepreneurs, and innovators, to develop traceability tools that can be implemented in a scalable, cost-effective way for food operations of all sizes.
And we recently launched a new quarterly podcast called TechTalk. The first installment, which posted on April 29, is about tech-enabled traceability. While the challenge is about new solutions, the podcast offers lessons learned, sharing experiences that food industry experts have had in developing industry-wide traceability initiatives to help keep food products safe.
The Traceability Challenge
Tech-enabled traceability – the ability to quickly track a food throughout the food system, from when it leaves its source to when it lands on your plate – is one of the foundational core elements of the New Era of Smarter Food Safety blueprint.
Achieving end-to-end food traceability will involve everyone in the supply chain – from source to table. To achieve that level of participation, we need accessible tracing solutions for human and animal food companies of all sizes. That means that we must help ensure that even small companies can use and benefit from new tracing technologies. Digitizing data at no or low cost through the use of creative financial models may allow the entire food system to get smarter together.
We’re asking food technology solution providers, public health advocates, entrepreneurs, and innovators across the human and animal food supply chain to present food traceability solutions that are affordable, create shared-value, and, thus, can scale to encourage widespread adoption.
When there’s an outbreak of foodborne illnesses, it’s critical to rapidly identify where the contamination originated. Doing so not only helps us prevent additional illnesses and potentially save lives, but it allows us to conduct better root cause analyses to prevent such outbreaks from happening again. It also may provide us with more detailed or specific information about the source of the contamination.
We also learned during the COVID-19 pandemic that further enabling a digitally traceable food system could help create the type of transparency needed to anticipate and help prevent supply chain disruptions in a public health emergency, thereby resulting in a more resilient food system.
The Low- or No-Cost Tech-enabled Traceability Challenge is being overseen by the FDA’s Office of Food Policy and Response and administered by precisionFDA, which convenes community challenges and app-a-thons that galvanize dialogue and scientific discovery around technologies.
The challenge invites submissions for tech-enabled solutions that address traceability needs and challenges faced by primary producers (such as entities involved in farming, fishing, and animal agriculture), importers, manufacturers and processers, distributors, and retailers and foodservice. There is a launch web page with all the information needed to participate in the challenge until the submission window closes on July 30 at 5 p.m. ET. Up to 12 winners will be announced at the completion of the challenge.
While there is no cash prize, the challenge winners will gain significant visibility, including an opportunity to present their entry in a public forum hosted by the FDA. The food industry will gain new insights into how to solve traceability challenges, and the FDA will open the door to a conversation about finding new ways to overcome obstacles in the road to farm-to-fork traceability.
The TechTalk podcast is hosted by the FDA and focuses on cutting edge topics. Each quarter we will examine a different aspect of the New Era of Smarter Food Safety blueprint for which there are novel technological approaches and solutions. This podcast features top experts in the field involved in food safety and technology.
In the first installment in April, experts from the Institute of Food Technologists, FMI: The Food Industry Association, and the global standards organization GS1 discussed the role they envision new technologies playing in improving traceability, and the advice they have for food producers contemplating next steps in their traceability journey.
Future podcasts will explore the role of technology in the other New Era of Smarter Food Safety core element areas, including data and predictive analytics, e-commerce and retail food modernization, and food safety culture.
Doing Our Food Safety Work Differently
Both the challenge and the podcast reflect how the FDA is approaching its food safety mission differently in the New Era of Smarter Food Safety, just as we have done in implementing the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). In developing and implementing the foundational FSMA rules, the FDA brought stakeholders to the table with an unprecedented level of outreach. With the New Era of Smarter Food Safety, the FDA is acting as a catalyst for change, seeking and distributing knowledge and bringing stakeholders together to find solutions.
We will always strive to keep consumers safe. But the process that leads to the kind of fundamental changes we’re talking about in the New Era of Smarter Food Safety blueprint is collaborative, recognizing that this is an evolution for the food industry. Thus, innovation that makes traceability more affordable may be the brainchild of innovators in the private sector. And lessons that can help companies envision using technologies to make their product safer may come from their counterparts in the food industry.
We invite you to learn more about the FDA New Era of Smarter Food Safety Low- or No-Cost Tech-enabled Challenge, the TechTalk podcast, and the New Era of Smarter Food Safety initiative. Our ultimate goal is, and has always been, bending the curve of foodborne illness in this country by doing everything we can to prevent the contamination of foods.
One way to do that is to tap into the wealth of expertise and information that can be found in government, industry, academia and other resources in the public and private sectors. Working together, we will find the approaches we need to help ensure that modern advances in food and information technology are accompanied by modern advances in food safety.