WASHINGTON, D.C. — Frank Yiannas, the Food and Drug Administration’s deputy commissioner for food policy and response, gave some details about the agency’s New Era of Smarter Food Safety campaign at the United Fresh Produce Association’s Washington Conference.
Yiannas, the former vice president of food safety for Walmart for 10 years, said the FDA’s work on produce safety has been front and central to his work since he joined the agency in 2018.
He praised the industry for its contribution to food safety, and said the public-private partnership on food safety efforts must strengthen even more through the New Era program, set to begin in 2020.
“I was asked by the (FDA) commissioner to continue to lead our efforts on modernization,” Yiannas said at the Sept. 18 conference session. “We’ve come a long way since 2011, but there’s still work to be done.”
Areas of focus
Tech-enabled traceability and outbreak response is one area of focus for the new campaign Yiannas said.
While produce has an impressive safety record overall, he said there are weak points in the supply chain.
“What I have learned over the years, and especially from my vantage point with the world’s largest company, is that I do believe the food system’s Achilles heel is traceability and transparency,” he said.
He said that in the spinach-related E. coli outbreak in 2006 and the romaine-related outbreak in 2018 traceability was an issue.
“It seems eerily similar almost a decade later,” he said. “And we still are having to do these overly broad consumer advisories.”
While he hopes the FDA won’t have to issue sweeping consumer advisories again, Yiannas said the agency will do it to protect consumer health. Better traceability and transparency can make those advisories unnecesary, he said.
Blockchain technology can be part of the solution, he said, but that isn’t the focus.
“It is not about the technology — it is about solving some of our many public health challenges,” he said.
Compared to some outbreaks where traceback can take weeks and perhaps never be completed, the goal is “traceability at the speed of thought.”
Data that creates predictive models to anticipate food safety issues can be part of the solution.
“As modern food safety approaches continue to generate big data, new data streams and tools for rapidly analyzing this data, we will plan to better explore as an agency how we use them for prevention,” Yiannas said.
The FDA’s Predictive Risk-based Evaluation for Dynamic Import Compliance Targeting (PREDICT) creates risk rankings for FDA-regulated products from regions around the world.
Yiannas said researchers are attempting to leverage machine learning and predictive analytics, and going back in time to see if the system would have been useful in past outbreaks.
“We will have that proof of concept completed in relatively short order,” he said.
The third area of focus will be keeping up with new business models in the way food is sold and distributed, noting the rapid rise of e-commerce in grocery.
“As food safety professionals, we have to keep pace with change,” Yiannas said.
Health officials carry the standard tools of inspection, training and testing but must look at new approaches to lower the number of foodborne disease outbreaks, he said.
Creating a culture of food safety among growers, food marketers and consumers is another element of the New Era of Smarter Food Safety plan, he said.
“What I’ve learned over the years, is that it’s impossible to make progress without changing and influencing behavior,” he said, noting the importance of “digital prompts” to encourage right behavior.
New strategies will use behavioral science experts.
Yiannas said the Food Safety Modernization Act is the foundation for food safety efforts, and the new-era tools will continue to advance progress.
The FDA has scheduled a public meeting to discuss its New Era of Smarter Food Safety on Oct. 21.