Deputy Commissioner for Food Policy and Response – Food and Drug Administration.
Every year, June 7 is World Food Safety Day and, every year, it becomes even clearer that all nations must stand together to help keep people all over the world safe and healthy.
As we’ve learned from COVID-19, infectious diseases know no borders. The same is true of foodborne illness. In a global food system, if foodborne disease exists somewhere in the world, it can exist anywhere in the world.
The theme of this day – “Safe Food Now for a Healthy Tomorrow” – speaks volumes. It conveys that how we produce food today affects the health and safety of people, animals, and even the planet tomorrow. For each and every one of you who work to protect consumers from unsafe food, your legacy is the preservation of health and of life itself. You will never know how many lives are saved, how you’ve improved the quality of life for others, or how our world is more vital and sustainable because of your efforts, but your impact is real and lasting.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the World Health Organization launched the first World Food Safety Day in 2019 and they’ve taken this stand: Food Safety is Everyone’s Business. They’re right. In a large, global food system, no single country, no single food producer, regardless of their size, can ensure food safety alone.
Food safety requires collaboration. It’s a shared responsibility and we’ve all got a stake in this. Therefore, the calls to action on this day go out to governments, food producers, business operators, and consumers – all over the world – to do their part to help ensure that the foods that we buy, sell, eat, and serve to our customers, friends and families are safe and wholesome. .
As nations continue to combat the danger that is COVID-19, the hope and commitment embodied in World Food Safety Day are more needed now than ever. Not just today, but every day. Not just in my country, but in all of our countries.
From FDA’s Perspective
I’d like to share with you what the U.S. FDA is doing to meet this call to action through our implementation of the landmark FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) and the goals we’ve set for a New Era of Smarter Food Safety that builds on our FSMA achievements. The commitment embodied in both FSMA and the New Era initiative is to protect consumers from unsafe foods, no matter where in the world that food is produced. The vision embodied in both is that consumers must be secure in the knowledge that everything that can be done is being done to keep the global food supply safe.
We passed an important milestone this year – the 10th anniversary of the signing of FSMA into law on January 4, 2011. There’s still work to be done, but we’ve accomplished a lot over the past decade. Because of FSMA, those who grow, produce, pack, hold, import and transport our food are now taking concrete steps every day to reduce the risk of contamination.
Importantly, and as a result of FSMA, there has been a bigger conversation about the importance of food safety over the past decade. This call to action emanated from the halls of Congress and has traveled to farms, food facilities, corporations, and consumers all over the world.
We are building on what we have achieved through FSMA with the New Era of Smarter Food Safety initiative by using new technologies and approaches to build a more digital, traceable and safer food system. We also learned during the pandemic that the New Era is an approach whose time has come.
Striving for Transparency
The virus that causes COVID-19 is not known to be transmitted via food or food packaging, but the pandemic has raised complex food issues for all nations. Early in the pandemic, there were food system imbalances in the marketplace and temporary shortages of certain commodities.
In March of last year, we were days away from releasing a blueprint outlining a 10-year plan to implement the New Era initiative when FDA’s attention rightfully shifted to pandemic response. By the time we released the blueprint in July, it was clear that there is an accelerated need for these goals.
For example, both FSMA and the New Era priorities include enhanced traceability of foods to rapidly identify the source of a contaminated food to solve outbreaks sooner and prevent additional illnesses. We learned during the pandemic that enhancing traceability may help create the type of food system transparency needed to anticipate and help manage supply chain disruptions and market imbalances in a public health emergency.
Embracing a food safety culture also means keeping food workers safe, a priority that has become clear during the pandemic.
Focusing on Imports
Another goal of our New Era approach is to evaluate the feasibility of using new regulatory compliance assessment tools, such as remote inspections of foreign and domestic firms with a demonstrated history of compliance. The pandemic hastened the need for alternatives when routine surveillance inspections were temporarily suspended last year before being resumed in July 2020.
In April 2020 we began remote inspections of importers subject to the Foreign Supplier Verification Programs (FSVP) requirements. The FSVP rule established by FSMA allows FDA to request records electronically from importers to help ensure that their foreign food suppliers are meeting U.S. safety standards. By doing this, we not only didn’t miss a beat in FSVP inspections, we have conducted a record number since March 2020 – more than 1,600.
We also want to explore the preventive value of new prediction tools that can help make sense of large data streams. We have been conducting a pilot that leverages artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) to strengthen our ability to predict which shipments of imported goods pose the greatest risk of violation and use that information to better target import review resources.
In August 2020, we announced the findings of a proof of concept application of AI and machine learning models to two years of historical shipment data of seafood. Imagine having a tool that almost triples our ability to know which of millions of shipping containers to examine because they’re more likely to have violative products. The second phase of this pilot was launched this February, applying the AI/ML model to real-world field conditions.
Ordering Safe Foods Online
FDA also wants to help ensure the safety of foods ordered online and delivered directly to consumers. The way consumers access food continues to evolve from around the corner to around the world and with an ever-changing last mile. Before the pandemic, research indicated that online grocery shopping would have a 20 percent share of consumer food spending within the next few years. But the pandemic has rapidly accelerated this trend, with one study reporting that food retailers saw online sales jump more than 300 percent in the first several months of the pandemic.
We are planning a New Business Model Summit later this year to gain a greater understanding of evolving direct-to-consumer business models and explore the best ways to address potential food safety vulnerabilities. Here again, the need for best practices has been reinforced and accelerated by COVID-19.
A New Light on Food Safety Culture
We gained a new perspective during the pandemic on our plans to support the establishment of strong food safety cultures on farms, in food facilities, and even in homes around the world. We will not make dramatic improvements in reducing the burden of foodborne disease without doing more to influence human behavior, especially among social groups whether it be in a business, a country, or a home.
But embracing a food safety culture also means keeping food workers safe, a priority that has become clear during the pandemic. FDA has worked with our federal regulatory partners to provide the food industry with resources on safe practices to help reduce the risk of infection. We are also using a data analysis tool, called 21 Forward, that we developed last year to monitor the food supply chain to help with vaccination planning by providing states with key information about the location of food and agriculture workers in their counties.
And with more people cooking at home when restaurants temporarily closed, we recognized – and have responded to — the need to support consumers with information on best food safety practices in their kitchen.
Taking responsibility and protecting each other is not just the foundation of a food safety culture; it is the belief inherent in both FSMA and the New Era of Smarter Food Safety initiative. It mirrors the underlying theme of World Food Safety Day, that we – government, industry, and consumers – must all work together to help keep each other safe.
The Burden of Foodborne Illness
Too many people are dying from foodborne disease, with an estimated 600 million illnesses –almost 1 in 10 people in the world – and 420,000 deaths annually. In the United States alone, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 48 million get sick and 3,000 people die each year from foodborne illnesses.
Again, this is not just the responsibility of a single nation. We are all increasingly eating foods from all over the world. In the U.S., about 15 percent of the food supply is imported from more than 200 countries or territories, including 32 percent of the fresh vegetables, 55 percent of the fresh fruit and at least 94 percent of the seafood that Americans eat each year.
Food safety is indeed everyone’s business. A World Food Safety Day page at fda.gov has valuable information about how to participate in spreading the word about food safety and what you can do to avoid foodborne illnesses.
World Food Safety Day is a recognition that when it comes to food safety, we all win or lose together. It’s a commitment that we can win — no, that we MUST win — together.