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FDA's Yiannas says improved traceability vital for ‘smarter food safety’

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Traceability is the "Achilles heel" of the US food safety system and states and the FDA need to work closely together to help industry tackle the issue and transition to an era of "smarter food safety," a top agency official said last week.

"FDA is very interested in this … and I think there is a strong public and business case for better traceability," FDA Deputy Commissioner for Food Policy and Response Frank Yiannas said in remarks at the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture's (NASDA) Winter Policy Conference.

Increased traceability will improve transparency and lead to more accountability from suppliers along the food chain, he said, and can provide customers with much more information about the products they are buying.

"Consumer expectations are changing," said Yiannas, the former vice president of safety for Walmart. "They want to know more about their food. Where it did it come from? Where is it grown? Is it safe? And that is why over the next few months you are going to be hearing more from me -- as well as the agency -- on the need for a new era of smarter food safety."

Yiannas took joined FDA in January and his focus on traceability and upgrading food safety oversight comes as little surprise to food industry insiders. He spent nearly two decades as director of safety and health for Walt Disney World before joining Walmart in 2008 where he pioneered the use of blockchain technology to strengthen food traceability. Yiannas is credited with Walmart's move to require all fresh, leafy green suppliers to implement digital, end-to-end traceability of their products by September 2019.

In his Feb. 26 comments to NASDA's Food Policy Committee, Yiannas referenced his private-sector background and said food retailers are "increasingly" moving to improve traceability, a trend that is going to provide benefits through the supply chain.

"You don't have to look too far to see what a lack of traceability has cost us," he said, highlighting the recent E. coli outbreak in Romaine lettuce that sickened 62 people across 16 states, the District of Columbia and Canada. Worry about the outbreak prompted FDA to effectively pull all Romaine lettuce from the market two days before Thanksgiving.

"At a time when consumers were getting together all over the country to celebrate around food, the nation was experiencing a significant food outbreak," Yiannas said. "The damage that does to consumer trust … is pretty hard to measure."

But lessons learned from the Romaine lettuce investigation can help FDA, state officials and the industry improve traceability across the food system, he said during Feb. 26 remarks before NASDA's Food Policy Committee.

Testing found the outbreak was genetically linked to outbreaks in 2016 and 2017 and an E. Coli sample was tracked back to a California farm. But the location identified through the traceback didn't account for the extent of the outbreak, leaving regulators uncertain about other all of the potential sources of the contaminated lettuce.

FDA's final report -- released last month -- "didn’t explain the totality of what happened," Yiannas said, but it showed that pathogens can survive year after year in certain growing regions and environments and also shed light on the need to verify the safety and effectiveness of water treatments for produce.

The inability to identify all the sources of the outbreak "really crystallized the need for better food traceability," Yiannas said.

"Smarter food safety isn't just a tag line or a slogan," he added, calling it "a different way of doing things" that will use emerging systems and technologies, including blockchain, Internet-enabled sensors and artificial intelligence to create a "safer, more digital and smarter food system."

The concept goes beyond technology, Yiannas explained, and requires close cooperation and coordination between all stakeholders, including federal and state regulators.

"I know from real-world experience that advancing food safety in this country involves working with the states -- without the states it is impossible to have a comprehensive food safety net," he said.

Smarter food safety "isn't walking away" from the new rules under the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), Yiannas told NASDA members.

"If anything it is based and going to be built on FSMA," he said. "In my mind, smarter food safety is people-led, FSMA-based and increasingly technology-enabled."

Reassurances that FDA is fully committed to funding states under FSMA were welcomed by NASDA, which adopted an action item encouraging the agency to continue funding state produce safety programs tasked with enforcing new FSMA rules.



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