"Digitalization has equated to speed and flexibility, and so I think it’s a reminder that we have to double down ... (so) we can make faster decisions and more intelligent decisions to be more flexible." ( FDA )

Frank Yiannas said the COVID-19 pandemic reinforced the necessity of public-private partnerships and confirmed the value of creating more digital-based record-keeping for the food system.

Yiannas, deputy commissioner for food policy and response for the Food and Drug Administration, spoke Sept. 25 at the United Fresh Produce Association’s Washington Conference about COVID-19 lessons learned and silver linings.

With the coronavirus, he said the food system in America passed the biggest test in the past 100 years. While there were rocky times and some shortages, he said the majority of SKUS are still on grocery store shelves.

“We passed the test,” he said. 

Passing the test

Yiannas said the federal rules were adjusted to allow food normally sent to foodservice establishments to be sold at retail grocery stores. 

That type of regulatory flexibility will be needed going forward to develop even more supply chain resilience, he said.

Another lesson learned, Yiannas said, is the value of using technology to solve business challenges.

“The reality, I think, is the pandemic shows that business sectors, including the food sector, have (become) a little bit more digitized. Digitalization has equated to speed and flexibility, and so I think it’s a reminder that we have to double down ... (so) we can make faster decisions and more intelligent decisions to be more flexible,” he said. 

In addition, Yiannas said the pandemic illustrates the importance of ongoing public-private partnerships, which served the food industry well during the crisis.

“When we work together better and faster than we have in the past, that’s actually good for American consumers.” 

The FDA, Yiannas said, had many conversations with industry leaders during the spring and summer and they were all built on complete transparency and trust.

“We were in the fog of the battle, if you will, we were in the foxhole together, and we had to trust each other,” he said. 

“I think we all want to continue this and let this become the new normal.” 

The pandemic provided an unprecedented time for interaction between industry associations and government, said Jennifer McEntire, senior vice president of food safety and technology for United Fresh. 

McEntire interviewed Yiannas during the Washington Conference virtual presentation. 

She said the FDA played an important role in communicating to consumers that food did not play a role in spreading the virus.

Yiannas also praised the efforts by the Texas International Produce Association, United Fresh and other industry food safety leaders who worked with the FDA and Mexican food safety inspectors to help create new food safety protocols for Mexican papayas.

“It was a wonderful model and it needs to be replicated in clones,” he said, noting that FDA penned a letter to the papaya industry last year asking for action after eight years of outbreaks. 

“I think it’s a model that we should use for reoccurring problems in the supply chain.” 


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