I was very excited to attend the FDA’s recent food safety public meeting in Washington D.C. The agency’s recently appointed Deputy Commissioner, Food Policy & Response, Frank Yiannas, is providing much-needed new energy to move us all forward towards what the FDA calls “A New Era of Smarter Food Safety.”

I was encouraged to hear the commitment to this new initiative from the huge audience, both in person and online, that included growers, shippers, distributors, retailers, academics, scientists, technologists and government. It seems the recent and continuing food-borne illness outbreaks may have been a tipping point for all the food supply chain participants.

A major focus of the meeting was the request to the audience for suggestions of how the FDA can deliver on its goal for a New Era of Smarter Food Safety. There were many suggestions, including:

  • Better communications between the numerous government agencies involved
  • Focus on smarter food safety culture including improved education at all levels
  • Use the latest science and technology where it makes sense
  • The need for everyone in the supply chain to be committed to change
  • A comprehensive food traceability program

Some participants commented on the challenges of connecting several technology systems together to aid the flow of important information. Others asked for further standardization of the specific data elements that are needed as the foundation for full traceability.

On the technology front, numerous speakers alluded to having the perfect system to solve the problems of comprehensive traceability, particularly those promoting blockchain. Those of us who have been in this space for some time know that technology alone will not get us there – it’s an important component, but we had perfectly adequate technology ten years ago and we failed to motivate all parties to get on board. We were unable to provide the justification, or, more accurately, the ROI for full deployment of traceability.

Full traceability costs money and someone must pay. Previous initiatives such as the Produce Traceability Initiative or using RFID generated terrific initial momentum that faded away when various parties began focusing on the ROI and couldn’t see a way to make traceability pay for itself. Some of these groups may have benefitted from hearing a moving appeal from an individual whose son died during the 1993 Jack In The Box tainted burger crisis.

There may be hope on the horizon. Some groups are beginning to report surprises from data – at least anecdotally. They are encouraged by having traceability data accessible across the whole supply chain. It appears that companies are seeing value from the data and seeing an ROI beyond the insurance factor of being able to trace product from fork back to farm. The data is revealing more secrets than expected, including highlighting transportation issues, temperature spikes, data errors and more.

These new insights might get us across the line. However, I am in the camp supporting a little nudge from the FDA. I’m not suggesting what form that might take – it could be a stick or a carrot or both. But left to our own devices, the industry has not demonstrated a track record of executing on traceability so far.

My optimistic side says the time is now and that it’s going to happen this time. There are glimmers of positive action from all sides, and this was clear at the FDA’s well-supported and vocal public meeting. The FDA’s New Era of Smarter Food Safety may just create the tipping point that’s needed. I look forward to writing about it’s success in the months to come.