This week the USDA and FDA signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) in an effort to prevent disruptions at FDA-regulated food facilities, including fruit and vegetable processing locations. The agencies are also trying to prepare for the peak harvesting seasons that involve freezing and canning fruits and vegetables. The MOU provides a process by which the agencies can determine the instances when USDA would exercise authorize under the Defense Production Act (DPA) related to food resource facilities that manufacture, process, pack or hold foods.
“While the FDA will continue to work with state and local regulators in a collaborative manner, further action under the DPA may be taken, should it be needed, to ensure the continuity of our food supply. As needed, the FDA will work in consultation with state, local, tribal and territorial regulatory and public health partners; industry or commodity sector; and other relevant stakeholders (e.g. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Occupational Safety and Health Administration) to chart a path toward resuming and/or maintaining operations while keeping employees safe,” stated FDA Deputy Commissioner for Food Policy and Response Frank Yiannas in an agency press release. “We are working with our federal partners who have the authority and expertise over worker safety to develop information on protecting worker health. We are also working with other federal partners to assist the food and agriculture industry in addressing shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE), cloth face coverings, disinfectants and sanitation supplies.”
USDA Certified Organic foods keep enjoying a robust growth, with fruit and vegetables leading, followed by dairy and beverages. Fraudulent organic certification is a growing problem, especially because food supply chains are becoming more complex, with a large amount of organic food now being imported. Violations by fraudulent organic certification are punishable by hefty fines and can be reported to the National Organic Program Online Complaint Portal.
FDA Deputy Commissioner for Food Policy and Response Frank Yiannas made it clear that the FDA is not replacing FSMA. Rather, the goal is to build on it, recognizing changes in the food industry over the last 10 years and the technologies available to tackle new challenges.
This isn’t surprising given continuing quality issues resulting in food recalls and shelf withdrawals. Last year, two major outbreaks of E. coli that were tied to consumption of romaine lettuce made a mark on industry perceptions, impacting customer trust, brand loyalty and the bottom line of companies involved were affected. Research by Allianz found recall costs could reach $10,000,000 for significant events.
To achieve the FDA’s goal of end-to-end traceability, the amount of information carried by every food item needs to increase, as will information about its location and condition in the supply chain. Grocers are at the sharp end of the food chain, meaning everything the FDA is proposing will impact them. As well as being merchandisers, they are brand-owners in their own right. They work directly with farmers and growers, they are directly involved in food safety, storage and distribution, and they feel the impact of recalls more than most. Unlike others in the food chain, they interact with consumers daily. This is important to note, since consumers are expecting communication on recalls immediately. In a recent study of more than 15,800 global consumers, 66% of respondents noted that they expect immediate notification of a product recall and another 28% stated they expect notification within a week.1 Furthermore, 88% said if a retailer immediately informed them of an issue, they would be more likely or slightly likely to trust them. The study also found that only 16% of consumers completely trust the product information provided to them from retailers today. In short, the impact of recalls extends far beyond the empty store shelf, and gives the industry even more reason to strive for safety.
High-Tech Next Steps
The FDA plans to publish a strategic blueprint early in 2020 of planned actions to meet its goal, but food brands and grocers need not wait to act. Proven technologies like brand compliance solutions, combined with emerging blockchain track and trace solutions and Internet of Things (IoT) sensors can add new depth and detail to traceability in the food supply chain, and these new technologies are already helping grocers and retailers keep consumers safe.
As retailers have sought a better means to track supply chain movements, blockchain technology has emerged as a potential way forward. Originally developed to manage financial transactions involving cryptocurrency, blockchain has proven to be capable of providing a verifiable record of the movement of goods through a supply chain. In fact, one major retailer has been piloting blockchain for more than a year and has already proven its value on produce items, cutting traceability times from more than a week to a matter of seconds. Some want to go even further and use IoT sensors to monitor the condition (e.g., temperature) of food products in the supply chain. Together, blockchain can help trace the path a product took through the supply chain and IoT can monitor the environmental conditions en route, providing a more cohesive picture of its supply chain journey.
But while supporting a few simple products with one ingredient and a one-step supply chain, such as fruits or vegetables, is one thing, scaling to address the needs of the average private brand retailer—now handling more than 10,000 active products from 2,000 production sites globally—is another. Managing the complexity of a product like tiramisu or a ready-made meal with dozens of ingredients, all coming from different sources, needs a different approach. To address the complexity, many are turning to brand compliance solutions—trusted, real-time repositories of information spanning the entire supply chain. For example, those using brand compliance solutions now have complete visibility of the ingredients in their private label products, helping them ensure labeling accuracy and transparency for consumers. Brand compliance tools also bring improved visibility of the food supply chain, enabling them to verify the status of manufacturing sites and respond quickly to food quality issues.
This combination of detailed product and supplier information makes brand compliance a foundational enabler for any blockchain/IoT-based initiative to improve supply chain visibility and traceability. For example, using brand compliance solutions, grocers can:
Confirm the ethical compliance of the supply chain at the point of selection or review, while using blockchain/IoT to monitor the ongoing conformance to these standards
Validate shelf life claims during formulation, while blockchain/IoT monitors logistical movement and environments to optimise products’ freshness
Record products’ formulation and ingredients to ensure safety, legal compliance and labeling accuracy, with blockchain/IoT monitoring the ongoing conformance to these standards
Rapidly identify potential risks across the entire formulation and supply chain, while tracking the affected batches to stores using blockchain and IoT
This convergence of static factual data (e.g., formulation, nutrition and allergens) linked to near real-time traceability and checking offers grocers confidence in the data and supports the consumer’s confidence of an actual product in their basket.
It seems clear that the food business is moving in the same direction as airlines and banks and becoming much more data driven. For grocers looking to keep pace, they will need to:
Treat data as a core competency. This means hiring information experts, investing for the future, and using data to identify ways to deliver better, safer products.
Create a customer-centric value promise. Grocers must go beyond regulatory compliance and use data to improve consumer transparency, support ethical sourcing initiatives, expand sustainable packaging and speed innovation.
Go above and beyond. Rather than waiting for FDA direction or simply complying with requirements, brands should take matters into their own hands, hold themselves to high markers and get started now.
In the future, improving the way that we manage the food supply chain is not just about how well we work with trucks and warehouses; it’s about how use information. The FDA’s initiative makes a clear statement that now is the time to modernize our food supply chains. As we look ahead to a new decade, the industry can come together to improve food safety and protect consumers, and we need not wait for the FDA’s blueprint or even the new year to get started.
The following infographic is a snapshot of the hazard trends in fruits and vegetables from Q3 2019. The information has been pulled from the HorizonScan quarterly report, which summarizes recent global adulteration trends using data gathered from more than 120 reliable sources worldwide. Over the past and next few weeks, Food Safety Tech will provide readers with hazard trends from various food categories included in this report.
Visibility, accountability and traceability are paramount in the agriculture industry, says Allison Kopf, founder and CEO of Artemis. In a Q&A with Food Safety Tech, Kopf explains how growers can take advantage of cultivation management platforms to better arm them with the tools they need to help prevent food safety issues within their operations and maintain compliance.
Food Safety Tech: What are the key challenges and risks that growers face in managing their operations?
Allison Kopf: One of the easiest challenges for growers to overcome is how they collect and utilize data. I’ve spent my entire career in agriculture, and it’s been painful to watch operations track all of their farm data on clipboards and spreadsheets. By not digitizing processes, growers become bogged down by the process of logging information and sifting through old notebooks for usable insights—if they even choose to do that.
I was visiting a farm the other day and the grower pulled out a big binder. The binder contained all of his standard operating procedures and growing specifications for the varieties he’s grown over the past 20 years. Then he pulled out a pile of black notebooks. If you’ve ever worked on a farm, you’d recognize grower notebooks anywhere. They’re used to log data points such as yield, quality and notes on production. These notebooks sit in filing cabinets with the hopeful promise of becoming useful at some point in the future—to stop production from falling into the same pitfalls or to mirror successful outcomes. However, in reality, the notebooks never see the light of day again. The grower talked about the pain of this process—when he goes on vacation, no one can fill his shoes; when he retires, so does the information in his head; when auditors come in, they’ll have to duplicate work to create proper documentation; and worse, it’s impossible to determine what resources are needed proactively based on anything other than gut. Here’s the bigger issue: All of the solutions are there; they’re just filed away in notebooks sitting in the filing cabinet.
Labor is the number one expense for commercial growing operations. Unless you’re a data analyst and don’t have the full-time responsibilities of managing a complex growing operation, spreadsheets and notebooks won’t give you the details needed to figure out when and where you’re over- or under-staffing. Guessing labor needs day-to-day is horribly inefficient and expensive.
Another challenge is managing food safety and compliance. Food contamination remains a huge issue within the agriculture industry. E. coli, Listeria and other outbreaks (usually linked to leafy greens, berries and other specialty crops) happen regularly. If crops are not tracked, it can take months to follow the contamination up the chain to its source. Once identified, growers might have to destroy entire batches of crops rather than the specific culprit if they don’t have appropriate tracking methods in place. This is a time-consuming and expensive waste.
Existing solutions that growers use like ERPs are great for tracking payroll, billing, inventory, logistics, etc., but the downside is that they’re expensive, difficult to implement, and most importantly aren’t specific to the agriculture industry. The result is that growers can manage some data digitally, but not everything, and certainly not in one place. This is where a cultivation management platform (CMP) comes into play.
FST:How are technologies helping address these issues?
Kopf: More and more solutions are coming online to enable commercial growers to detect, prevent and trace food safety issues, and stay compliant with regulations. The key is making sure growers are not just tracking data but also ensuring the data becomes accessible and functional. A CMP can offer growers what ERPs and other farm management software can’t: Detailed and complete visibility of operations, labor accountability and crop traceability.
A CMP enables better product safety by keeping crop data easily traceable across the supply chain. Rather than having to destroy entire batches in the event of contamination, growers can simply trace it to the source and pinpoint the problem. A CMP greatly decreases the time it takes to log food safety data, which also helps growers’ bottom line.
CMPs also help growers manage regulatory compliance. This is true within the food industry as well as the cannabis industry. Regulations surrounding legal pesticides are changing all the time. It’s difficult keeping up with constantly shifting regulatory environment. In cannabis this is especially true. By keeping crops easily traceable, growers can seamlessly manage standard operating procedures across the operation (GAP, HACCP, SQF, FSMA, etc.) and streamline audits of all their permits, licenses, records and logs, which can be digitized and organized in one place.
FST: Where is the future headed regarding the use of technology that generates actionable data for growers? How is this changing the game in sustainability?
Kopf: Technology such as artificial intelligence and the internet of things are changing just about every industry. This is true of agriculture as well. Some of these changes are already happening: Farmers use autonomous tractors, drones to monitor crops, and AI to optimize water usage.
As the agriculture industry becomes more connected, the more growers will be able to access meaningful and actionable information. Plugging into this data will be the key for growers who want to stay profitable. These technologies will give them up-to-the-second information about the health of their crops, but will also drive their pest, labor, and risk & compliance management strategies, all of which affect food safety.
When growers optimize their operations and production for profitability, naturally they are able to optimize for sustainability as well. More gain from fewer resources. It costs its customers less money, time and hassle to run their farms and it costs the planet less of its resources.
Technology innovation, including CMPs, enable cultivation that will provide food for a growing population despite decreasing resources. Technology that works both with outdoor and greenhouse growing operations will help fight food scarcity by keeping crops growing in areas where they might not be able to grow naturally. It also keeps production efficient, driving productivity as higher yields will be necessary.
Beyond scarcity, traceability capabilities enforce food security which is arguable the largest public health concern across the agricultural supply chain. More than 3,000 people die every year due to foodborne illness. By making a safer, traceable supply chain, new technology that enables growers to leverage their data will protect human life.
Fruit and vegetable farmers are doing an “impressive” job of complying with the laws and regulations related to pesticide use in production, according to the USDA’s annual Pesticide Data Program (PDP) report. Based on data from 2016, the report found that more than 99% of samples had pesticide residues that were “well below” the EPA’s established tolerances, and more than 23% had no detectable residues. Less than half-a-percent of samples (0.46%) had residues that exceeded the EPA established tolerance.
To compile the PDP report, surveys were conducted in 2016 on several foods, including eggs, milk, and fresh and processed fruit and vegetables. The report contains data from more than 10,000 samples collected throughout the United States.
A release from the Alliance for Food and Farming states that the U.S. food supply is one of the safest in the world, yet: “Activists groups often manipulate the findings from the USDA PDP report taking the very positive results and somehow turning them into something negative. This tactic has been used routinely for 20-plus years to create a so-called ‘dirty dozen’ list, which has been repeatedly discredited by scientists.”
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