Food safety, traceability rule to get COVID-19 makeover

FDA's new food digitization and traceability rule, once slated for early 2020 release, will be revamped to take COVID-19 into account.

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Upcoming release of food traceability rule will take COVID-19 into account, FDA says

After its release was delayed by the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) new food safety and traceability rule will be revamped to take the pandemic into account.

Increased traceability and “advanced analytical tools” will enable the FDA and industry to better understand how food becomes contaminated, and will aid in the understanding of supply chains and could help prevent the kind of shortages that developed in early 2019 in the future, commissioner Stephen Hahn wrote in a June statement. These technologies could also enable more virtual and remote inspections, and could help make agrifood more agile as an industry, avoiding food waste and other issues that developed when restaurants and schools shut down during the pandemic.

“It is clear that COVID-19 has accelerated the need for these measures,” Hahn wrote. “When the agency originally developed the blueprint, we knew that these new technologies could be game changers in facilitating a more rapid traceback of a contaminated food to its source in the event of a foodborne outbreak. What became clear during the pandemic is that enhanced traceability is also a helpful tool in understanding supply chain impacts in the event of a public health emergency.”

The Smarter Food Safety Blueprint will use technologies such as blockchain, artificial intelligence and the internet of things to build upon regulations already in place under the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). Although originally slated for release in March 2020, the rule was delayed by COVID-19. In the intervening months, FDA has worked to incorporate lessons learned during COVID-19 into the rule. There is still no set release date, but Hahn’s statement indicates that the revamped rule will be “in the coming weeks.”

Although feed industry associations generally support the FDA’s goal of improving food and feed ingredient traceability, the rule has come under fire for being overly reliant on emerging technologies that may be financially out of reach for some within the feed and animal ag industries.

In a December letter filed with the FDA, the American Feed Industry Association (AFIA) urged the “FDA to temper its enthusiasm to embrace new technology with the reality of current infrastructure in the U.S.” AFIA continues to argue that companies need to be allowed flexibility in how they comply with FSMA and related FDA regulations, and warns that mandating specific technology-based solutions could have “unintended consequences.”

In a separate December statement, the National Grain and Feed Association (NGFA) echoed similar sentiments.

“NGFA agrees with FDA that use of new technologies and tools can enhance the ability of the regulatory community and industry to advance food safety,” the statement reads. “However, a new regulatory model that relies on an era of ‘smarter’ food safety must appropriately recognize and account for the diversity and complexities within supply chains and not utilize a one-size-fits-all approach. Indeed, any modernized regulatory framework that FDA adopts through its initiative must be achievable, practical, and foster meaningful food safety practices for each sector of the regulated industry to which it is applied.”

View our continuing coverage of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

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