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Getting Smarter about Food Safety: The Pandemic and Lessons Learned

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Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the experts at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration have learned valuable lessons that will help shape our work to create a more digital, transparent and safer food system for you and your family.

In the coming weeks, the FDA will be rolling out the blueprint for the New Era of Smarter Food Safety, which lays out how we will use technology and modern approaches over the next decade to strengthen the ways we approach the safety of the nation’s food supply, every day and in times of crisis. The agency has been developing the blueprint over the past year with input from food safety experts within the FDA and stakeholders who include consumers, the food industry, technology firms, federal and state regulatory partners, our regulatory counterparts in other nations and academia. Now, we are also integrating the lessons learned during this pandemic to ensure that our food supply is supported during times of crisis.

“The challenges we’ve faced during the pandemic have made it clear that the goals we set forth in the New Era blueprint are more important now than ever,” says Frank Yiannas, FDA’s Deputy Commissioner for Food Policy and Response. “Some of them, like enhanced traceability, are particularly meaningful in light of recent events."

Tracing Products Through the Supply Chain: Going Digital

Emerging digital technologies—such as blockchain, which connects blocks of information in a public database—make it easier to track and trace food products through the supply chain—from the time that they are grown or manufactured, until purchased by you and your family. Traceability is important—especially if we’re trying to rapidly determine the source of a foodborne illness and remove adulterated food from the market.

Traceability is also useful in the event of a public health emergency such as the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, you may have found your grocery store temporarily out of certain foods. Or you may have read about farmers plowing under crops because their customers, like restaurants and schools, had to close during the pandemic. Being able to trace foods makes the supply chain more transparent and may help the FDA and the food industry to anticipate temporary supply imbalances that cause problems like these and to take proactive steps to meet your needs.

Better Protections When You Order Food Online

Did you find yourself ordering more foods online for home delivery—maybe even for the first time, ever—as you and your family sheltered in place? Are you confident that the foods were produced, packed, and transported safely to you?  Here again, the need for best practices has been highlighted by the challenges from COVID-19.

Before the pandemic, consumers were increasingly ordering foods online. One of the New Era of Smarter Food Safety focus areas is helping to ensure that temperature control, cross contamination and other safety issues are considered. The importance of this goal has become all the more apparent in the past few months as more and more consumers turn to their phone or laptop to order food as they hunker down at home.

We’re All in This Together: Developing A Culture of Food Safety

Finally, Yiannas says that if there’s one thing we’ve learned during the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s that whether we’re consumers, farmers, factory workers or manufacturers, we’re all in this together. Another core element of the New Era is the establishment and support of what we call food safety cultures on farms, in food facilities, and at home.

Before the pandemic, food safety culture meant addressing how the workers on farms and in food facilities think about food safety and demonstrate a commitment to this goal in how they do their job. The pandemic showed that it’s about more than that. A food safety culture is also about keeping those workers safe, and it’s about educating ourselves on the best food safety practices when we cook at home, which more of us are doing now.

This reflects one of the main lessons learned from COVID-19, says Yiannas, that we—government, industry and consumers—can and must work together to help keep each other safe.

“What we have learned from the pandemic is that we’re on the right track with the New Era of Smarter Food Safety. The steps that we’ll take will prepare us to protect the safety of our food supply, no matter what challenges we face,” he says. “We will get there together, stronger and more resilient than ever.”

For more details, see New Era of Smarter Food Safety.

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