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Dileep Thatte

Risk Management

Developing a New Era for Smarter Food Safety

An FDA initiative will use lean principles to prevent foodborne illnesses

Published: Wednesday, August 25, 2021 - 12:01

In 2018, the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed that, every year, June 7 would be celebrated as World Food Safety Day. In 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations decided to jointly facilitate the observance.

The purpose of this day is to “inspire action to help prevent, detect, and manage foodborne risks, contributing to food security, human health, economic prosperity, agriculture, market access, tourism, and sustainable development.” It also reminds us all why improving food safety is important.

The WHO estimates that each year, unsafe food causes 600 million cases of foodborne diseases and 420,000 deaths worldwide. Of this number, 30 percent of foodborne deaths occur among children under 5 years of age. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 48 million people get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die from foodborne diseases each year in the United States.

Food safety through prevention

Having recognized this, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) launched the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), which emphasized safety through prevention based on science and risk-based protections. The FSMA shifted the focus from responding to foodborne illnesses to preventing them.

A new initiative by the FDA called “The New Era of Smarter Food Safety” builds on FSMA and incorporates more effective processes and modern techniques. This approach further addresses the issue of foodborne illness by leveraging the use of new and emerging technologies, which will result in improving predictive capabilities, enhancing prevention, and accelerating speed and effectiveness of the outbreak response. It encourages food manufacturers to establish and internalize the culture of food safety.

It may take a decade to implement this approach. Dynamic in nature, this initiative is likely to evolve as the sensor technologies, data management, and food manufacturing and processing systems evolve.

The New Era of Smarter Food Safety is centered around four core elements:
1. Tech-enabled traceability
2. Smarter tools and approaches for prevention and outbreak response
3. New business models and retail modernization
4. Food safety culture

These are the foundational pillars covering the range of technologies, analytics, business models, and values that are the initiative’s building blocks. Although technology is extremely important, this approach gives primacy to leadership and creativity. This New Era of Smarter Food Safety is going to be people-led, FSMA-based, and technology-enabled.

Core elements and how the MEP National Network helps

The Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) is part of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). The MEP National Network (MEPNN), whose mission is to strengthen and empower U.S. manufacturers, comprises NIST MEP, 51 MEP centers located in all 50 states and Puerto Rico, and its more than 1,400 trusted advisors and experts at more than 385 MEP service locations. These centers are staffed with experienced technical personnel who assist small and medium-sized manufacturers with operational excellence, workforce development, food safety, and more. The MEPNN is extremely well positioned to serve as a resource to food manufacturers and processors to help them become successful in the New Era of Smarter Food Safety.

Core element 1: Tech-enabled traceability

Advancing traceability protects consumers from contaminated products by doing rapid trace backs, identifying specific sources, and helping to remove products from the marketplace as quickly as possible whenever necessary. The growing realm of tracing technology can assist end-to-end traceability throughout the food safety system.

MEPNN staff are well-versed in helping manufacturers adopt new technologies and support interoperability across a variety of technology solutions.

Core element 2: Smarter tools and approaches for prevention and outbreak response

This element deals with root cause analysis and data analytics. Root cause analysis is an important step in identifying and modifying practices to avoid risks. Proper data analysis can lead to predictive analytics.

NIST has been one of the leading organizations in the field of predictive analytics. MEPNN staff are proficient in conducting root cause analysis since it is routinely used in other industries. The network will be able to support food manufacturers in effectively implementing this element of the new initiative.

Core element 3: New business models and retail modernization

How food gets from farm to table continues to evolve with the emergence of e-commerce and new delivery models. There has been a significant growth in online shopping for meals and groceries in recent times. This trend is expected to continue. Innovations in novel ingredients, new foods, and new food production systems require use of technology for management and production.

The MEPNN’s knowledge of Industry 4.0, which incorporates sensor technology, the internet of things (IoT), and data analytics would serve very well for food manufacturers to usher into this new era.

Core element 4: Food safety culture

Changing the culture of food safety is of paramount importance for protecting public health. Changing cultures takes time because it involves changing attitudes, behaviors, and values. The actions taken by the organization’s leadership play a pivotal role in making the change a success.

The MEPNN knows that any major change, such as those implemented through lean manufacturing or quality management systems, requires a commitment from senior leadership and a change to company culture. Food safety is no exception. MEPNN staff are experienced in helping manufacturers institute cultural changes.

The New Era of Smarter Food Safety is expected to significantly reduce foodborne illnesses in the United States. The MEP National Network is already helping food manufacturers with requirements of FSMA, and is now ready, willing, and able to assist them to usher in the new era of smarter food safety.

First published Aug. 5, 2021, on the Manufacturing Innovation Blog.

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About The Author

Dileep Thatte’s picture

Dileep Thatte

Dileep Thatte is a manager with the National Institute of Standards and Technology, Manufacturing Extension Partnership.