- Speech by
Deputy Commissioner for Food Policy and Response - Food and Drug Administration
(Remarks as prepared for delivery)
I am very glad to have this opportunity to speak to each and every one of you.
I want to give you an update on where we are with the New Era of Smarter Food Safety initiative that FDA announced last year. We will be releasing the New Era of Smarter Food Safety Blueprint in the coming weeks, a document shaped by valuable input from you and our other stakeholder partners.
But I’d first like to speak to World Food Safety Day, which is this Sunday, June 7. It seems to me that it has never been more important for all nations, all of the states in our great country, and all food safety professionals, whether public or private, to stand together to help keep people all over the world safe and healthy.
Last year was the first World Food Safety Day and its relevance was immediately clear. In a global food system, foodborne disease knows no borders. As long as foodborne disease exists somewhere in the world, it can exist anywhere in the world. The theme of this event – “Food Safety Is Everyone’s Business” – says it all.
I represented FDA at the United Nations on June 7, 2019, when the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) launched that first World Food Safety Day. It was a wonderful opportunity to talk about how we can work together, as one, to improve the quality of life for consumers and people in all nations.
The world has changed since then, as nations combat the danger that is COVID-19. With that change comes this clarity: The hope, the commitment, and the responsibility embodied in World Food Safety Day are needed more now than ever before.
And they’re needed every day, all 365 days a year.
Time of Pandemic
World Food Safety Day’s calls to action are ones that the FDA, and our regulatory and public health partners, are answering. FDA will continue to answer these calls, both in its response to COVID-19 and in its everyday work of helping to ensure the safety of the food supply.
There is a call for food safety authorities to manage risks along the entire food supply chain, including during emergencies. There is a call for good practices by farmers and food processors to address potential risks and for preventive controls by business operators.
Through its implementation of the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), Congress’ vision of a science and risk-based approach to preventing foodborne illness, FDA has established standards and preventive controls that farms and facilities all over the world are putting in place to mitigate the risk of contamination in foods produced domestically and those exported from other countries into the U.S. The New Era of Smarter Food Safety initiative will build on the foundation built by FSMA by using new technologies and approaches to help create a more digital, safer, and traceable food system.
During the pandemic, FDA postponed routine, in-person inspections except in mission-critical situations, but we are working closely with federal, state and local partners to monitor the food supply for signs of potential outbreaks. And we are using other tools, such as remote inspections of certain importers, to verify compliance with safety regulations.
The food issues that have arisen during the pandemic are complex. The virus is not known to be transmitted via food or food packaging. However, the global food supply chain has been rocked by other factors related to the pandemic. Unprecedented consumer demand has led to temporary spot shortages.
The temporary closure of restaurants, schools and other places that serve food has left many food producers without their normal path to the marketplace. The FDA has worked to provide flexibility on packaging and labeling requirements to help clear new paths to the retail market and to help reduce food waste.
The calls to action also include empowering consumers with the information they need to make healthy food choices. This has long been a priority for the FDA. Our Nutrition Innovation Strategy announced in 2018 strives to empower consumers with information and facilitate industry innovation to create healthier products to combat the burden of chronic disease. The pandemic has further highlighted the importance of reducing chronic diseases, which put people at higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19.
The Burden of Foodborne Illness
What hasn’t changed since last year is the global impact of foodborne disease, which causes an estimated 600 million illnesses – affecting almost 1 in 10 people in the world – and 420,000 deaths annually.
In the United States alone, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 3,000 people die each year from foodborne illnesses. CDC reported recently that illnesses are on the rise from certain pathogens in the food supply.
We are all increasingly eating foods from all over the world. In the U.S., about 15 percent of the food supply is imported from more than 200 countries or territories, including 32 percent of the fresh vegetables, 55 percent of the fresh fruit and at least 94 percent of the seafood that Americans eat each year.
Food safety is indeed everyone’s business. A World Food Safety Day page on fda.gov has valuable information about how to participate in spreading the word about food safety and what you can do to avoid foodborne illnesses.
World Food Safety Day challenges us to stand together to do everything possible to protect food from contamination, no matter where in the world it is produced. Our shared mission on this day, and all days, is to keep consumers safe, no matter where in the world they live.
The New Era of Smarter Food Safety
And that brings us to the New Era of Smarter Food Safety. In March, we were a few days away from announcing the release of the New Era of Smarter Food Safety Blueprint when the FDA’s focus turned to the COVID-19 pandemic. Our plans for the New Era initiative were rightfully put on hold in order to prioritize the agency’s COVID-19 response.
As I said earlier, we will be releasing the blueprint in the coming weeks, outlining our plans over the next decade to help create a more digital, traceable, and safer food system. The challenges that have come up during the pandemic have made it clear that the actions called for in the blueprint will strengthen how we approach the safety and security of the food supply, not just in the normal course of events but especially in times of crisis.
In fact, over the past few months we have revised the blueprint in light of the lessons learned during the pandemic. It is clear that COVID-19 has accelerated the need for these measures.
Some elements of the blueprint are particularly meaningful now. I would like to touch on these, starting with tech-enabled traceability.
Emerging technologies, such as blockchain, make it easier to track and trace products through the supply chain – from the time that they are grown or manufactured, until purchased by a consumer, and back through the supply chain.
When the agency originally developed the blueprint, we knew that these new technologies could be game changers in facilitating more rapid traceback of a contaminated food to its source in the event of a foodborne outbreak.
What became clear during the pandemic is that enhanced traceability is also a helpful tool in understanding supply chain impacts in the event of a public health emergency.
Enhanced traceability, coupled with advanced analytical tools, could provide greater supply chain transparency and visibility and potentially help the FDA and industry more rapidly adjust to the kind of marketplace imbalances that resulted in the temporary spot shortages of certain commodities we’ve seen in recent months.
And it could help us anticipate and help mitigate the kind of food waste we saw when food producers lost customers in restaurants, schools, and other entities temporarily shuttered by the pandemic.
In other words, we believe a digitized food system is likely to be a stronger, more agile, interoperable, and resilient food system.
Smarter Tools and Approaches for Prevention
The blueprint calls for the use of smarter tools, such as root cause analyses and predictive analytics that use data to better understand the food supply chain, anticipating the likelihood of contamination and disruptions. More real-time and data-driven approaches will help ensure a strong and resilient food system
And new collaborative approaches outlined in the blueprint – ones that call for greater partnerships with both the states and private sector - will help ensure an optimal use of resources and maximize our food safety reach.
And the blueprint also calls for other new and innovative tools to be explored, such as virtual or remote inspections (which we started as a result of the pandemic), greater use of which would have been invaluable in the current public health emergency in place of traditional ways of ensuring compliance.
New Business Models and Retail Modernization
Another New Era focus identified in the blueprint is the safety of foods ordered online and delivered directly to consumers. We’ve seen this purchasing trend steadily increase over the years, but it has skyrocketed as families sheltering in place order foods from restaurants and grocery stores online and by phone, often for the first time.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, research indicated that online grocery shopping would have a 20 percent share of consumer food spending within the next few years. However, one survey is now reporting that 31 percent of U.S. households are already using online grocery services.
So, this question becomes even more important – how do we ensure that these foods are produced, packed, and transported safely directly to consumers? Here again, the need for best practices and an industry standard of care have been accelerated by COVID-19.
Many of the nation’s retail food establishments have had to temporarily close or turn to take-out operations during the pandemic. As they reopen and recover, we will work with them to help ensure that best practices are in place to help keep the foods they serve safe.
Food Safety Culture
Last but not least, the New Era speaks to the establishment and support of food safety cultures on farms, in food facilities, and in homes across the country. The pandemic shined a light on what it truly means to have a food safety culture.
It’s about the people who work on farms and in facilities accepting responsibility – not just accountability - for producing safe foods. It’s also about keeping them safe when their health could be at risk. It’s about educating consumers on the best food safety practices when cooking at home, which more people are doing now.
Taking responsibility and protecting each other is not just the foundation of a food safety culture; it mirrors one of the primary lessons from COVID-19, that we – government, industry and consumers – must all work together to stay safe. We must do this because caring for each other is the right thing to do.
For all the recent challenges, I have been greatly impressed by the resilience of the food system. Despite all the pressures and all the imbalances, consumers can still go to the supermarket or go online and have access to thousands of food products, which is a tribute to the commitment of the men and women who work hard every day to provide safe and available food.
The Value of Partnerships
I have been equally struck by the positive impact of partnerships between the FDA and our local and state regulatory and public health counterparts, and the strength of relationships between federal partners – including CDC, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration – and the food industry.
We all have the same goals: to help ensure that consumers have access to the foods they need and to protect the food industry workers who have made that possible.
Partnership is a theme woven throughout the New Era Blueprint – and our partners have stepped up in a big way during this crisis. The collaboration between government and industry especially has increasesd by many magnitudes.
This bodes well for the New Era, which will rely on an even closer collaboration between the FDA and stakeholders in the public and private sectors when it comes to food safety. I trust I can count on you in charting this New Era, together.
I’d like to stop here for a moment and take this opportunity to once again 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.
They’ve been going to work every day to provide a lifeline for American consumers anxious about having enough food to feed their families. These men and women working on farms and in food facilities, selling food in grocery stores and restaurants that are now providing take-out meals, delivering foods to producers and consumers alike – they have been on the frontlines of this pandemic.
I know you hear the term frontline more often in association with health care workers, but there’s more than one frontline in this crisis.
The New Era Blueprint
Our experiences thus far in our ongoing response efforts have only reinforced that the New Era of Smarter Food Safety is the right approach for the future. The lessons we are learning are helping us prioritize our goals by highlighting the areas in greatest need of new technologies, tools, and approaches.
I am grateful for the dedication and commitment of the FDA staff in the agency’s pandemic response and their foresight in looking to the future. Even though the blueprint release has been on hold, they have continued to work on identifying short- and long-term deliverables, pulling together implementation teams in priority areas of work, and further building the internal infrastructure needed to support this work.
When the FDA announced the New Era of Smarter Food Safety initiative last year, the agency was convinced then that its time had come.
Now, we know that these are the changes we should embrace, and that this is the path forward to a future in which we are well-equipped to protect the safety and security of our food supply no matter what challenges we face.
We will get there TOGETHER, stronger and more resilient than ever.