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The Food and Drug Administration is ushering in what it calls a New Era of Smarter Food Safety, with a focus on technology to trace the origin of fresh produce and other foods when there’s a recall or pathogen outbreak.

The FDA announced the plan April 30, and is developing a “blueprint” to help the industry meet the agency’s goals. The blueprint will focus on:

  • Traceability;
  • Digital technologies; and
  • Evolving food business models.

Following a spring 2018 E. coli outbreak linked to Yuma, Ariz., romaine, then-FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb expressed frustration that investigators’ traceability efforts were hampered by paper records, some of them handwritten. In a Nov. 1 statement, Gottlieb called for an industry-wide adoption of technology to make traceback of tainted produce. Although the statement did not reference Blockchain technology, it is a common focus in the industry.

“We strongly encourage the leafy greens industry to adopt traceability best practices and state-of-the-art technologies to help assure quick and easy access to key data elements from farm to fork,” Gottlieb wrote.

The April 29 statement from the FDA is attributed to Ned Sharpless, the acting commissioner since Gottlieb left the agency in April to spend more time with his family, and Frank Yiannas, deputy commissioner for food policy and response at the FDA. Yiannas is the former vice president of food safety for Walmart, which wants all leafy greens suppliers to use Blockchain technology to track shipments.

“The use of new and evolving digital technologies may play a pivotal role in tracing the origin of a contaminated food to its source in minutes, or even seconds, instead of days or weeks, when contamination does occur,” according to the statement.

The FDA also plans to assess how new technologies can enhance food safety, and is focusing on imports initially.

“The number of import food lines is increasing year after year and applying the best predictive and analytical tools will help ensure we’re targeting the greatest risks to protect consumers,” according to the statement.

“This pilot will build upon FDA initiatives already under way, which are also looking at how use of these new technologies may be able to help us continue meeting our public health mission.”

The FDA plans to consider how food business models are changing, particularly home delivery of foods.

“These evolving business models present food safety challenges as well as novel considerations around regulatory framework and oversight at the federal, state and local level,” according to the statement. “Our Blueprint will discuss areas for collaboration in this space as we work to identify the appropriate standard of care in this rapidly growing sector.”

The FDA plans to schedule a meeting this year to meet with stakeholders to learn what companies are doing to create a smarter, safer food system, according to the statement.

“As we continue moving toward this new era of smarter food safety, we won’t lose sight of the fact that smarter food safety is more than just technology,” according to the statement. “It’s about embracing technological advancements in ways that build upon the vision (Food Safety Modernization Act) set forth.”

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E. coli outbreak over, but not the investigation into romaine