By Pete Kennedy, Esq.
The largest food safety conference in the world took place from July 31 to August 3 when the International Association for Food Protection (IAFP) held its annual meeting in Pittsburgh. IAFP’s mission is “to provide food safety professionals worldwide with a forum to exchange information on protecting the food supply.”1 More than three thousand professionals from government, industry, academia and nonprofits attended this year’s meeting. The IAFP meeting is a window into what’s coming down the pike with food, food safety and food regulation. Food safety professionals have a thankless job, investigating foodborne illness outbreaks involving foods that often have ingredients obtained from multiple countries, due to the globalization of the food supply.
Globalization and a continued decline in food quality and transparency have made it difficult for government and industry to bring down the number of foodborne illnesses. Frank Yiannis, Deputy Commissioner for Food Policy and Response of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), noted in a regulatory update he gave at IAFP that the number of foodborne illnesses in the U.S. has been flat for two decades.
A major topic at this year’s meeting was the persistent problem of illness caused by salmonella in poultry. In a regulatory update she gave for the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), Sandra Eskin, USDA Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety, conceded that the department has consistently failed to meet public health goals with regard to salmonella in poultry. To deal with the salmonella issue, USDA implemented performance standards for poultry in 2015—testing requirements that disproportionately impacted small-scale USDA slaughter and processing establishments and were a factor in Texas terminating its state poultry inspection program. The performance standards led to fewer positive tests for salmonella in the facilities USDA regulates, but the number of illnesses attributed to salmonella in poultry—the bottom line in evaluating the effectiveness of that or any other food safety initiative—remained the same. USDA responded to its failure to make any progress by announcing on July 31 that it was establishing a zero tolerance standard for breaded poultry products, a first step in extending zero-tolerance to other poultry.
USDA-inspected poultry establishments commonly slaughter between two hundred thousand and three hundred thousand birds per day, a production level that makes quality control difficult to attain. Instead of imposing performance standards and zero tolerance, decentralization of poultry production would likely be more effective in reducing illness. Over fifty years ago, USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) issued a regulation allowing on-farm poultry processing of up to twenty thousand birds per year without an inspector present for slaughter and processing; the number of foodborne illness outbreaks attributed to producers operating under the exemption are few, if any.
The most alarming news at the IAFP meeting was the announcement by Yiannis that FDA will be issuing a final rule on food traceability in November for what the agency designates as “high risk foods.” The proposed rule on food traceability, authorized by the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), imposes extensive recordkeeping requirements; it even covers those who produce cottage foods in home kitchens and farmers who sell any of their private production to anyone other than the final consumer—the regulation could easily drive small-scale producers out of business. Unless the final rule is a substantial improvement on the proposed rule, the traceability regulation which should start going into effect next year represents the biggest threat FSMA has posed to the viability of small farmers and local artisans.
Another FSMA rule that was a focus of the meeting was the regulation on agricultural water (‘ag water’) used by produce growers; to say the ag water rules and the implementation of them are confusing would be an understatement. Rules on harvest and post-harvest agricultural water quality are going into effect in January 2023 for “very small business” January 2024 for “small business,” and January 2023 for all other business. In July 2022, FDA issued a proposed rule for preharvest agwater; that rule will go into effect for very small business in two years and nine months, for small business in one year and nine months and for other business in nine months after the final rule for preharvest ag water goes into effect. The proposed rule will require producer farms to do a preharvest agricultural water assessment covering matters such as water source and location, animal impacts, biological soil amendments of animal origin, adjacent land activity, untreated human waste and environmental conditions.
One speaker at the meeting commented that the implementation of the ag water rules will be complex and that there will need to be training and retraining of the trainers teaching farmers how to get into compliance with the new regulations. A state regulator remarked that there is no way farmers and regulators will be ready to implement and enforce the harvest and post-harvest ag water requirements when they start going into effect. Another speaker noted that there are still numerous knowledge and data gaps in understanding exactly what FDA wants on the ag water requirements. The extensive monitoring and recordkeeping requirements of the ag water rules make it a potential threat to the viability of small and midsize growers. Both the food traceability and the ag water rules look to be ways to consolidate market share into fewer and fewer hands.
The traceability rule in particular is an opportunity for FDA to further roll out what it calls “The New Era of Smarter Food Safety,” a campaign that “represents a new approach to food safety, leveraging technology and other tools to create a safer and more digital, traceable food system.”2 In his talk at the meeting, Yiannis told the audience to envision a future where all information on food (how it was produced, where it’s available, etc.) is such that food can be traced in seconds. He encouraged the attendees to imagine buying foods “you can trust” at a store because you know everything about it. Yiannis stated that we are moving toward an age where everything will have a digital footprint and voice so that inspectors can monitor a food processing plant whenever they want, not just inspect once every five years. He warned, “Things
are going to change dramatically in the years ahead.”3
One technology that Yiannis favors is blockchain, a digital ledger that can be used to trace food from farm to fork. One presenter at the IAFP meeting spoke about a Chinese blockchain product called GoGo Chicken. According to its manufacturer Zhong An Technology, “All info related to the chicken can be verified in the blockchain.”4 This includes “the chicken’s age and location, how far it walks each day, air pollution, the quality of water it drinks, when it’s quarantined, when it’s slaughtered…” and more.4 According to Yiannis, hundreds of Chinese poultry farmers raising free-range organic birds are using the technology to combat fraud from factory farms that are also claiming their birds are free-range. The organic birds are tagged with an anklet “that tracks and reports every aspect of their lives.”4
Another blockchain product, the IBM Food Trust, is a network used by over eighty brands. Consumers can use a QR code to determine the processor and the farmer of the food they are eating—a globalized virtual version of “know your farmer, know your food.” Blockchain is being used for beef to determine whether the cattle are, in fact, grass-fed; it can detect other kinds of food fraud as well. A speaker at the conference indicated that blockchain could be a fit for the FDA traceability rule. There are a number of potential downsides to blockchain. It is expensive and incredibly energy-consuming; one speaker conceded that there must be mass participation for blockchain to make sense. It is unclear how well blockchain protects the confidentiality of proprietary information.
Cybersecurity could be another issue; one speaker said that there had been two hundred cyber attacks on food and agriculture and that the government was monitoring over forty groups for ransomware activities. Scalability could also be a problem with blockchain as the required data storage capacity of the technology is huge. Further, blockchain is immutable once data are entered into it and timestamped; incorrect data can’t be rectified.
Another technology in favor with government and industry is artificial intelligence (AI) defined at the meeting as “the ability of a digital computer or computer-controlled robots to perform tasks commonly associated with intelligent beings.”5 One presenter at IAFP spoke of Industry 5.0. Another commented that AI has a big role in FDA’s “New Era of Food Safety.”
AI can be used to make decisions on the farm regarding seed selection, water content, soil selection and crop monitoring. In a food processing plant, AI can be used to remove defective products through optical sorting and through sensory smell and taste through an electronic nose (known as an enose) that would replace human noses in a production setting. The industry can also use AI for selection and analysis of components in food, to identify flavor and provide quality assurance for packaging. AI can be used for warehousing and storage, analysis of delivery routes, for maintenance and timely repairs of equipment. For sanitation, the future is robots doing the cleaning instead of humans; robots can be made sterile so the thought is that pathogens would be less likely to crop up in the plant. Moreover, AI has been used to evaluate workers’ personal hygiene.
Aside from blockchain and AI, speakers at IAFP mentioned a number of other technological tools for food safety. There is facial recognition technology, which can be used for purposes ranging from determining when an individual came to and left a food processing plant on a particular day to how many people with a red shirt and black pants were in an area of the plant on a specific date. There is wearable vision technology with a remote or off-site assessor to direct an on-site inspector to potentially problematic areas of the plant. For the on-site inspector, there are body cameras used for a similar purpose. There are drones used to inspect silos or areas of a roof; there are temperature sensors to stay with the food product throughout its whole journey from the processing plant to the customer’s home. It all adds up to expensive, broad-spectrum, 24/7 surveillance.
Despite whatever technologies government and industry use to improve food safety, the fact is that regulators have a myriad of problems to contend with. The breakdown in supply chains has led to conditions more conducive to food fraud, something that is common with foods like honey and olive oil. One speaker commented that with the breakdown in supply lines, it’s all manufacturers can do to find the ingredients they need, much less verify them for authenticity. Another challenge is foreign materials, such as metals, found in food products. According to one conference presenter, foreign materials are the number one reason for food recalls in the industry, surpassing allergens. Some plants have installed x-rays or metal detectors to deal with the issue. Another problem is the continually increasing antibiotic resistance in livestock and poultry. One speaker commented that surveillance for antimicrobial resistance is becoming increasingly common, with resources and costs being a challenge.
Nanoparticles in food are another threat to the safety of the food supply; recent articles in the media have covered the considerable number of food products that contain nanoparticles. A study displayed at the meeting found that currently used methods for washing produce did not get rid of silver nanoparticles in romaine lettuce. According to one of the authors of the study, the silver nanoparticles accumulate in both the liver and kidneys.
As if regulators didn’t have enough to contend with, the introduction of insects into the food supply is another food safety risk they will be taking on; categorization of insects as a food allergen is under consideration. In the meantime, the number of products on the market containing insects appears to be rapidly increasing; the authors of one study on edible insects, publicized at the meeting, used—among other products for their work—a trail mix containing black scorpions as an ingredient.
The best response to all the problems the industrial food system is suffering is to support the production and consumption of locally produced food. The digitization and massive overregulation in the industrial system is unlikely to reverse the deterioration in quality of conventional food nor to reverse the increasing lack of transparency of what is actually in the food. The answer isn’t increasing regulation to the point it further consolidates the food industry; instead, it̕’s deregulating locally produced food to increase its market share. There is no need to spend billions on transparency and traceability—those are already built into local food. More of being able to look the producer of your food in the eye—fewer QR codes to see who grew your favorite food five thousand miles away—is the path to improve nutrition, health and community.
Part of this article first appeared at Solari.com in “Surveillance and Centralization on the Menu.”
1. About IAFP. International Association for Food Protection. https://www.foodprotection.org/about/
2. FDA (2020, July). New Era of Smarter Food Safety: FDA̕’s Blueprint of the Future. [PDF], p.1. https://www.fda.gov/media/139868/download
3. Yiannis, F. (2022, Aug 1). U.S. Regulatory Update on Food Safety. [Conference session]. IAFP 2022 Annual Meeting, Pittsburgh, PA.
4. Peters, A. (2018, January 12). In China, You Can Track Your Chicken On–You Guessed It–The Blockchain. Fast Company. https://www.fastcompany.com/40515999/in-china-you-cantrack-your-chicken-on-you-guessed-it-the-blockchain
5. Virtual Food Safety Monitoring, Auditing, and Artificial Intelligence Applications. (2022, Aug. 2). [Conference session]. IAFP 2022 Annual Meeting, Pittsburgh, PA.