By: Stephen M. Hahn, M.D., Commissioner of Food and Drugs and Frank Yiannas, M.P.H., Deputy Commissioner of Food Policy and Response
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Foods Program has been using a new data analysis tool, called 21 FORWARD, that the agency created to help inform our response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, through an important partnership between the FDA, members of Operation Warp Speed, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), data from 21 FORWARD is also being made available to assist states with their planning efforts for vaccine distribution.
21 FORWARD was developed in a joint effort by the FDA’s Office of Food Policy and Response, Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, Office of Regulatory Affairs, and Center for Veterinary Medicine to help the FDA identify where risks for interruptions in the continuity of the food supply may be the greatest because of the pandemic. While there is currently no evidence to suggest that COVID-19 is transmitted by food, the pandemic has nonetheless impacted the supply chain and consumers’ access to the foods they are seeking, making supply chain continuity and food availability top priorities for the FDA.
Early on in the pandemic, workers in the food and agriculture sector were identified by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency as being among essential critical infrastructure workers, meaning that their ability to do their job safely is critical to our society’s ability to function. The FDA, in partnership with CDC and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, has been working to provide food facilities the information and resources they need to help protect their workers against COVID-19 infection.
Given the importance of the food and agriculture sector in feeding American consumers, it is not surprising that groups like the CDC Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) and the National Academies have recommended that workers in this sector receive high priority for COVID-19 vaccinations. So, you can see how the efforts to safeguard the human and animal food supply and prioritize vaccine administration run on parallel tracks.
Contributing Data to Inform Vaccine Distribution
With this in mind, the FDA is contributing information from its 21 FORWARD tool on the estimated numbers and distribution of food and agriculture sector employees who work at FDA regulated food facilities to Operation Warp Speed’s Tiberius platform. For states, territories and major metropolitan areas, Tiberius is a one-stop-shop for data related to planning, delivery and administration of COVID-19 vaccines.
On December 22, the CDC updated its recommendations to federal, state and local governments on the phased distribution of vaccines, based on guidance from the ACIP. CDC recommended that food and agriculture workers be among the front-line essential workers covered in the second phase (1b) of the vaccine rollout. As vaccines are delivered across the country in the coming weeks and months, the 21 FORWARD data will augment other data sources on food and agriculture workers. The goal is to help target vaccine distribution by providing state and local officials with information to help determine how many food and agriculture workers they have in each county and enabling them to quickly identify where those workers are located.
Recognizing that other federal data sets could further assist state planning efforts, the FDA, CDC, and USDA partnered to incorporate USDA information on farms and farm workers, as well as facilities that are regulated by the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). FSIS is contributing data on the location of meat, poultry, and egg processing establishments to the Operation Warp Speed effort. This data is also available to the public on an interactive table and map, as well as a mobile app (MPI Directory).
CDC and collaborators involved in Operation Warp Speed have played a key role in educating state response and planning groups on the availability of this information.
This collaboration is important for what it will accomplish, but also for what it represents: That when we work in collaboration across federal agencies, we best fulfill our shared mission to protect public health.
How Does 21 FORWARD Work for FDA?
This tool was designed to enable us to use CDC forecast data to track the incidence of COVID-19 across the country and identify areas in which its spread could impact key segments of the food system. In addition to the forecast data, the tool is also fueled by information on the number and location of FDA-regulated food facilities and the number of workers at those facilities.
We have been working on the platform for months, starting early tracking and monitoring during the summer. Since its official launch on December 4, we’ve been using 21 FORWARD to help track reported COVID-19 impacts at FDA-regulated food processing and distribution facilities, looking for potential trends when problems occur. Informed by this tool, we have already reached out to certain facilities and provided consultations with FDA experts.
Here’s how it works:
FDA Consumer Safety Officers use 21 FORWARD to plan and conduct calls to FDA-regulated human food facilities in areas that are experiencing high incidences of COVID-19 cases or are anticipated to do so. Using the tool, we prioritize contacting those facilities by size, type of food produced, and current or anticipated rates of new COVID-19 cases in the area.
The purpose of these calls is, in part, to see how the facilities are doing and whether the COVID-19 resources we’ve provided on fda.gov/food – guidance documents and other tools for the food industry – are useful.
For example, we want to know if they’ve experienced or are currently experiencing a reduction or slowdown in production due to COVID-19. We ask if they are having difficulty receiving the supplies they need to manufacture their food products. If a facility requests technical assistance, our Foods COVID-19 Technical Assistance Team will follow up.
Using Data to Fuel Strategic Actions
FDA’s Pandemic Recovery and Preparedness Plan (PREPP) initiative launched in August aims to apply best practices and lessons learned to permanently inform the FDA’s operations and processes. As we continue this initiative, 21 FORWARD will provide some of those lessons. We’ll have a better understanding of the food supply chain and its vulnerabilities. Ultimately, the experience gained from the work we are doing now will help us be better prepared in the future to support the food supply.
One of our most important resources is our ability to unleash the power of data. We need better quality data and more meaningful analyses and to transform streams of data into more meaningful, strategic, and prevention-oriented actions.
That’s exactly what we’re doing here. We’re using the power of data and employing our analytical skills to do everything we can to help keep food industry workers safe and support the food supply chain.
As an agency, when we contribute our different skills and information to a common public health mission – that is when we are our strongest, our most effective.
To our colleagues who have worked tirelessly throughout this pandemic to protect the health of their fellow Americans, we most sincerely and humbly thank you for all that you continue to do.