Traceability Requirements and Best Practices

By Michael Biros
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What is a traceability system and how is it related to a recall plan? Will FDA require electronic record-keeping? What does FSMA require FDA and industry to do in terms of traceability? These questions and more are answered by The Acheson Group in the latest FSMA Fridays webinar.

What are the latest updates on FSMA?
In response to the substantive nature of the public comments, FDA plans on proposing new versions of the Preventative Controls Rules for Humans and Animals.

The proposed Preventative Control rule requires a recall plan. Is traceability covered through mock recalls?
A recall plan and a mock recall are not the same as a traceability system. A traceability system focuses on the ability to know what came in from where and where it was sent. A mock recall is a much more involved process that looks at production records and many other factors. However, in order to do a robust recall, you need a functional traceability system. The Preventative Control rule requires a recall plan and other parts of FSMA require traceability systems. The two are related, but they are fundamentally different.

How does FSMA address traceability and why is traceability a part of FSMA?
Traceability is distinct from a recall plan and FDA will have to address it separately from the Preventative Controls requirements. Traceability is covered in Section 204 of FSMA which describes the detection and response to food safety problems. While there’s an element of prevention in having a good traceability system, it really focuses on the response side. Traceability continues to be an Achilles’ heel for the regulators. Many of the statute components that are built into FSMA are based on prior experiences and situations. The biggest debacle with traceability was the tomato/pepper issue in 2008 where not only was the commodity wrongly identified, but it took close to eight weeks to figure out that it was wrong.

In this instance, FDA struggled with not having adequate records and being able to do the traceability components correctly and quickly. This and other similar issues has caused the food safety pendulum to swing.

Traceability is essential. FDA would love for the traceability requirements to be more robust, but they are limited by what is economically feasible and practical. Looking to the future, it’s entirely reasonable that traceability requirements could be strengthened.

What does FSMA require FDA to do in terms of traceability?
Pre-FSMA, there are record-keeping requirements in place related to traceability coming from the Bioterrorism Act. Basically, the current requirements are one-up, one-down: where did you get the product from, where did you send the product to? In developing the traceability requirements of FSMA, Congress required FDA to conduct pilot studies to determine what practices and technologies work and what doesn’t. FDA also needed to look at the cost/benefit related to technology and changes in traceability systems and what was current practice both domestically and internationally. FDA has the authority through FSMA to require additional records be kept for high risk foods. We expect FDA to issue a proposed regulation for traceability and record-keeping with high risk foods sometime in the future.

What did the traceability pilots recommend and are those recommendations now in effect?
Ten recommendations were made to FDA based on the results of the pilot studies and stakeholder input. The first recommendation was that all foods should be designated as traceable, not just those that are designated as high risk. Another recommendation was that FDA should accept electronic records rather than going in person and getting photocopies and that FDA should develop a system for processing traceability data. It was also recommended that FDA work collaboratively with industry. Over the past few years, there have been several industry led efforts with varying levels of adoption that are generally moving towards standardized and electronic records-keeping systems. Finally, it was recommended that FDA identify subject matter experts to help the agency understand specific industries for when there is an issue with the supply chain.

None of these recommendations are currently in effect because FDA hasn’t released a proposed rule yet and is still reviewing the report and public comments. The full report is available for the public to view, but ultimately it is up to FDA whether they accept the recommendations and if/how they put them into regulation.

Will FDA require electronic record-keeping?
The agency does not have the statutory authority to require companies to use electronic record-keeping. FDA recognizes that electronic record-keeping is the way of the future and prefers it, but they cannot require it. They will let companies keep their records how they want as long as they can be produced within 24 hours if requested.

What should companies do today to prepare and what do you think FDA will do next?
Companies should read the IFT report, read the recommendations, and consider how they would have fared if they participated in the pilot studies. They should give some critical thought to how they would perform if there was an outbreak and they were the focus of a traceability study. Traceability is a byproduct of good record-keeping. If a company has an opportunity to make improvements, consider how traceability can factor in to those changes. Companies should talk to supply partners and understand the whole supply chain. Ultimately, the company is connected to all the other links in the supply chain and any one of those links can impact you.

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