FDA

FDA Announces Blueprint for 'New Era of Smarter Food Safety'

Past attempts to reduce foodborne illnesses haven't worked. Will a focus on technology make this effort any different?

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Earlier this week, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced a blueprint for improving the safety of the foods the agency regulates. The approach, dubbed the "New Era of Smarter Food Safety," while light on details, "outlines the approach FDA will take over the next decade to usher in the New Era of Smarter Food Safety."

Though the blueprint is new, plans for it have been underway for more than a year. In an April 2019 statement, then-acting FDA commissioner Ned Sharpless teased a "new era of smarter food safety that is people-led, FSMA-based, and technology-enabled!"

FSMA is the acronym for the Food Safety Modernization Act. That law, passed early in 2011, was—at least according to Congress, the FDA, many large food businesses, and food-safety activists—a bold move that would prevent many cases of foodborne illnesses from ever happening once the law took effect.

"FSMA has been a centerpiece of our work to help ensure food safety and prevent foodborne illnesses through the use of science and risk-based standards," current FDA commissioner Stephen Hahn said in a statement announcing the agency's plans this week. "The blueprint we release today represents the next stage in this process[.]"

That blueprint describes vague efforts to "leverage[e] technology and other tools to create a safer and more digital, traceable food system," which suggests the agency will ramp up its own use of technology to limit the spread of foodborne illnesses and may require food businesses to do the same.

Response to the blueprint has been muted this week.

"Now that the blueprint document is out, it is clear that parts of the project are not yet clear," Food Safety News reported this week after reviewing the document.

While details are lacking, we can look outside the FDA's own words to learn more about the blueprint's proposed approach.

In 2018, Frank Yiannas, then Walmart's top food-safety official, published an excellent article in MIT's Innovations, "A New Era of Food Transparency Powered by Blockchain," that features some of the same details as this week's FDA blueprint, including using blockchain to improve food traceability. In the "new era" article, Yiannas—who's since left Walmart and now, not coincidentally, heads the FDA's food-policy work—describes how using blockchain reduced the amount of time it took Walmart to trace the origins of a single package of sliced mangoes back to the farm on which the mangoes were grown, from more than 162 hours to 2.2 seconds. That change suggests how technology can dramatically improve the ability to trace and halt the sources of foodborne illness outbreaks rapidly and effectively.

While that's really great for Walmart and consumers—and bad for foodborne illness—I have a couple of concerns about the approach. And it turns out my concerns are shared by some commenters who responded last year when the FDA invited the public to comment on an even rougher sketch of the "new era" plan.

First, how might the "new era" impact small food businesses, particularly small farmers, if the agency's focus on using technology such as blockchain evolves into rules requiring some or even all businesses to do the same? One commenter wondered just that.

"While I love the idea of utilizing new technology, such as blockchain, for increased traceability and transparency, this type of technology is not readily available to all sectors of the food chain," wrote commenter Barbara Williams, who wondered if Amish farmers, for example, won't invest in the technology, will they find the FDA has determined "that their product cannot be used?"

Second, if FSMA's proactive stance was supposed to prevent cases of foodborne illness and reduce the need to react to those cases, why does it appear the FDA is reversing course? After all, supporters invariably claimed FSMA was the most sweeping reform of U.S. food safety laws in nearly 80 years. At FSMA's heart was this clear agency paradigm shift: "transforming the nation's food safety system by shifting the focus from responding to foodborne illness to preventing it."

Food & Water Watch, a nonprofit that generally supports stricter food regulations, including FSMA, pointed out in its comments to the FDA that FSMA seems at odds with the agency's "new era." 

"While we believe that enhancing trace[ability] capabilities is important, it seems that the agency is placing emphasis on reacting to failures in the food safety system," the group wrote. "FSMA was enacted to turn FDA's food safety program from one that reacted to foodborne illness outbreaks to one that prevented foodborne illness."

That's exactly what FSMA was supposed to accomplish. But the Centers for Disease Control estimates of foodborne illness cases have remained virtually unchanged since FSMA became law.

"The incidence of most infections transmitted commonly through food has not declined for many years," the agency reported in May, while also noting that "targets for reducing foodborne illness will not be met" by the end of this year.

That doesn't surprise me at all. As I've noted many, many times, the FDA itself predicted FSMA would have only the tiniest impact on rates of foodborne illness. Just look at the agency's own estimates of the impact of the two key FSMA rules on cases of foodborne illness. Even if implemented to absolute perfection—as I detail in my book, Biting the Hands that Feed Us: How Fewer, Smarter Laws Would Make Our Food System More Sustainable— the FDA's own best-case scenario is that those rules would spur a 2.6% reduction in total annual foodborne illness cases.

So it's no surprise at all that CDC data suggest FSMA has had little or no impact on cases of foodborne illness. And it's no surprise that the FDA appears to be sweeping that fact under the rug, here moving on to a "new era of the next shiny object."

None of this is to say that the FDA's new blueprint—something like ramping up the use of technology to improve traceability and reduce the spread and impact of future cases of foodborne illness—is a bad one. It's not. In fact, one successful federal government effort to improve food safety already relies on a similar approach. The CDC-led PulseNet program, which I wrote about in a 2016 column, is an exceptional tool for tracing, tracking, and halting foodborne illness outbreaks. The program, now more than 20 years old, "prevents more than 275,000 cases of foodborne illness each year," I wrote. "And it does so with a tiny budget."

Four years ago, in that piece on PulseNet, I asked Robert Scharff, a professor at Ohio State University whose study on the PulseNet network formed the basis for my column, about how governments choose to allocate (or, as the case may be, misallocate) resources in the fight against foodborne illness.

"There is too much emphasis in government on regulation (often promulgated with a weak scientific basis) and too little on helping market[s] work better through the provision of information," Scharff told me.

It's not clear yet what exactly the FDA means when it refers to a "New Era of Smarter Food Safety." And there's no suggestion the FDA wants to stop enforcing FSMA. But it certainly seems like this week's blueprint suggests a much more promising agency approach than FSMA (even if the FDA claims the New Era of Smarter Food Safety is meant to work with or as part of FSMA). 

FSMA hasn't made our food system demonstrably safer. With its New Era of Smarter Food Safety, the FDA appears finally to be acknowledging that fact and maybe—just maybe—proposing something better in its place.

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  1. Correct headline:
    “FDA issues press release in desperate attempt to assure continuing tax dollar flows”.
    Using a smokescreen of “science”, the FDA continued the deep state move toward fascism, issuing even more rules to eliminate small, independent, farmers and concentrate food production and distribution in the hands of fewer and much larger corporations. The larger firms are considered much easier to control through politics, and more importantly, social media pressure. This will facilitate control of the masses through food access regardless of the current occupant of the White House.

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    2. Consolidation of food production is caused more by economics of scale than anything else. Yet at the same time, as Big Agra grows two or three types of tomatoes because they ship well, it creates opportunities for small growers to specialize. It’s no grand conspiracy.

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    3. The building of empires.

  2. I’m seeing articles in German news sources indicating that Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s cancer has returned. Naturally, she is being lauded for her courage in continuing to work She’s lucky that she’s a member of the liberal wing of the court. If she were a conservative, the media would be decrying her selfishness for her unseemly refusal to step down, and they would be deploring the damage she was doing to the legitimacy of the court by working in her diminished state. The hypocrisy would be hilarious if it weren’t so transparent and self-serving.

    1. “I’m seeing articles in German news sources indicating that Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s cancer has returned.”

      Impossible. A corpse can’t get cancer.

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      1. The projection is strong with this one. I’m a fucking doctor. My job is to alleviate human suffering. I don’t lick my chops at the suffering of any human being, you pathetic squirt of whale shit.

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  3. The ability to eliminate all foodborne illnesses has existed for decades it’s called irradiation.

    1. NAZI, you want us all to glow in the dark? It amazes me that irradiation is not used on a large scale. But then, it’s not about safety, it’s about control.

  4. using blockchain reduced the amount of time it took Walmart to trace the origins of a single package of sliced mangoes back to the farm on which the mangoes were grown, from more than 162 hours to 2.2 seconds.

    Obviously blockchain should be used for *everything*, including COVID contact tracing.

    1. Well, Gates was in favor of universal microchips – – – – – – –

      1. “The Blue Screen of Death”

    2. Obviously blockcockchain should be used for *everything*, including COVID contact tracing.

      FTFY

  5. “ramping up the use of technology to improve traceability and reduce the spread and impact of future cases of foodborne illness”

    That this kind of stuff is touted as a “blueprint” is ridiculous. It’s right up there with “Visualize World Peace”.

    1. “Environmental Justice.”

    2. “Visualize Whirled Peas”

  6. Maybe the ACLU will sue them to “save our democracy” or some bullshit. Because the ACLU is no longer fighting for our 1st or 2nd or 4th amendment civil rights. They gave up on that just like all good far left prog assholes did.

    1. The ACLU is only 25% of its former self.
      Not American
      Not Civil
      Not for Liberty
      But forever Union

  7. Political Correctness Is Destroying America! (Just Not How You Think.) Jon Schwarz

    Today’s GOP often enforces internal ideological purity more strictly than the Chinese Communist Party.

    No member of the House is going to go on the CBS morning show and say, “I think all religion is pernicious, it’s a gross form of brainwashing children, and every religious leader is a con artist, including the Pope.”

    As with the conservative PC about God, Democrats also obey the conservative political correctness about foreign policy.

    https://theintercept.com/2020/07/18/political-correctness-destroying-america/

    1. “Today’s GOP often enforces internal ideological purity more strictly than the Chinese Communist Party.”

      Did I miss the camps?
      Have ten million starved from food stamps reductions already?
      Is ‘Conscience of a conservative’ required reading? Can you be jailed for not carrying a copy?
      Is outlawing abortion the same as mandating it?
      Who is John Galt?

      1. Somebody didn’t watch Jesus Camp.

        1. Was Jesus Camp a GOP operation?

  8. None of this will have any impact on foodborne illnesses. The only thing these regulations accomplish is endless paperwork. The result is consolidation to large companies that can afford staff to handle the paperwork at the expense of small farms and producers.

  9. The problem is that the FDA is tasked with making our food safer, just as the EPA is tasked with making our air and water safer, OSHA is tasked with making our workplaces safer, the NHTSA is tasked with making our roads safer, etc. Doesn’t matter if you enlist 42 million people at a cost of 11 trillion dollars, there’s always “safer”. There’s no fucking end to “safer”. There’s no point where these bureaucrats are ever going to dust their hands off, say “well, I guess that’s safe enough”, and they all go home and call it a job well done. Nope, doesn’t matter how safe things are, there’s always safer. We’re long past the point of diminishing returns, all the cheap and easy fixes have been done and now we’re spending a dollar to get a nickel’s worth of safety. We’re done, stop making shit safer, we can’t afford it. We would literally be better off offering these people twice their salaries if they would just agree to go home and do nothing.

    1. If their efforts save one life, then their’s wasn’t wasted

    2. Just like the lockdowns. As long as there is one case of the virus out there, we all gotta shelter in place, wear a full body condom in public, and bathe in bleach.

  10. I prefer dumber food safety.
    Dumber food doesn’t lecture about the ills of salt, cholesterol, red meat, dairy, etc. like smart foods do.
    Dumb food just lets you eat it without argument.

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  12. Oh, come on. Orangemanbad is out to ensure that all your food is poison, and is using the FDA to ensure that it’s so. The narrative can’t be wrong.

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  14. If food safety were truly vital, we’d irradiate all food.

    But that scares people, so we don’t.

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  17. “Past attempts to reduce foodborne illnesses haven’t worked.”

    Are you high? Historically illiterate? We have reduced food borne illnesses by orders of magnitude. Hell, we have made huge leaps even since the 70’s. Maybe you are not old enough to remember when pork chops were a tough and chewy affair, driven by the need to ensure that the meat was thoroughly cooked in order to avoid trichinosis. It was still quite common even 30 years ago. Today, you can have your pork medium rare if you’d like.

    Much of what we know about disease and how it is spread came from tracing food borne illnesses. It is one of the best understood and best mitigated vectors of disease transmission.

    We pasteurize our milk not so that we can oppress “whole food” activists, but because prior to pasteurization millions of people were getting sick from salmonella or e. coli in the milk.

    Sure, it is a constant battle. The people who produce our food are not all experts in disease transmission and their focus is not always on eliminating contamination. But we have a global food supply chain that allows me to have fresh fruit and vegetables in our local market year round, and contaminated food supply problems are rare enough that they make the national news and are a big deal in the culture.

    That subhead is absolutely counterfactual.

    1. And a significant player in keeping food safe is PLASTIC packaging.

      Notice how quickly we banned cloth shopping bags when the Big Virus came to town!

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