With nearly 100,000 employees at more than 4,500 locations across the United States and abroad, the federal agency that farmers and ranchers interact with the most is clearly the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
But increasingly, there are more decisions and regulations being developed at the Food and Drug Administration that impact everything from fresh produce to livestock feed and even the types of new, genetically engineered animals that can be approved.
The agency regulates about 75% of all foods and food ingredients introduced into or offered for sale in interstate commerce, except for meat, poultry, certain processed egg products, and catfish, which are regulated by the USDA.
For example, the fast-growing AquaAdvantage salmon, which is raised domestically in land-based fish farms, was the first GE food animal to win FDA approval in 2015, after a 25-year journey through the regulatory process. It took a few more years to bring these Atlantic salmon to market—after USDA finalized labeling rules and FDA regulators were forced to revisit their approval after a legal challenge. But in 2021, AquaBounty succeeded with its first commercial sale with an immediate sell out.
On the food safety front, the FDA has been busy rolling out what officials there describe as “the largest overhaul of the nation’s food safety system since the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act of 1938.”
Signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2011, the Food Safety Modernization Act enables FDA to develop new rules that focus more on preventing food safety problems than relying primarily on reacting to food safety problems after they occur. About 48 million people in the U.S. get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die each year from foodborne diseases, according to recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The law also gave the agency important new tools to hold imported foods to the same standards as domestic foods and directed FDA to build an integrated national food safety system in partnership with state and local authorities.
Frank Yiannas, who worked for the world’s largest retailer prior to joining the Food and Drug Administration in 2018 as deputy commissioner for food policy and response, recently spoke to the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture about their shared efforts to be more proactive on food safety. On the sidelines of that event, he also told me a story about mangoes which illustrates how technology can play an important role in improving the safety of our food supply.
“I took a package of sliced mangoes purchased at a Walmart store on the table and told our team of food safety and logistics professionals to tell me where those mangoes came from,” Yiannas told me in an exclusive interview. “You know how long it took them? Six days, 18 hours and 26 minutes.”
Fast-forward and his team went to work with small mango growers in Central and South America, along with distributors, processing facilities, warehouses and retail stores, capturing the data using a type of distributed ledger technology known as blockchain. It wasn’t long before he could literally scan a package and trace those mangoes back to their source in 2.2 seconds. “Seven days to 2.2 seconds,” he emphasized. During that process, he moved from being a blockchain skeptic to a distributed ledger fan.
The example is important because, in the event of a food scare, “people might avoid all mangoes, and the livelihoods of mango farmers who have nothing to do with the illnesses or outbreak are destroyed,” he emphasized. “On the other hand, if you don't react quickly, seven days is a long time for people to potentially contaminate mangoes.”
U.S. romaine lettuce growers witnessed this scenario firsthand a few years ago: Federal regulators identified food safety outbreaks and advised consumers to avoid all sources of their product rather than targeting a specific source or region.
Yiannas said the more important outcome from the mango exercise is that “it wasn't just about food safety and traceability. It provided a level of food transparency that we didn't have before.”
“I could see in almost real time how those mangoes traveled and where were the bottlenecks. For example, the shipment sat way too long crossing the customs border between Mexico and the U.S.”
He saw opportunities for removing one day from distribution of those mangoes from farm to store—a day of additional shelf life for the consumer and a lot less spoilage in a distribution center or warehouse.
Yiannas said tracking doesn't have to be done with blockchain, but with more centralized databases. “One of the key components is that we have to create data standards to allow the entire food system that's big and decentralized to speak a universal language of food traceability.”
FDA issued a proposed food traceability rule in the fall of 2020 that Yiannas said the agency is on target to finalize in November.
While Yiannas is not at liberty to talk about the final rule, in the proposal “people can see that we really focused on standardizing key data elements—what we call critical tracking events—so that we could stay technology-agnostic, yet allow the food system to speak one common language of food traceability and transparency."
His sense is that these new tools are becoming so prevalent that this type of tracking is already in use for some products, and that growers and food producers will probably comply using technology.
“I think you're going to see in the future, more and more foods being transparent, where the consumer or regulator will know exactly where that food came from, in real time. Food traceability at the speed of thought, and that allows platforms to allow producers to better communicate with consumers what their product is, what's different about it."
As a self-proclaimed “foodie,” Yiannas said the 20th century was about the industrial revolution that enabled farmers and ranchers to produce more food than ever before. In the digital age, food will increasingly have a digital footprint and consumers will have the ability to know much more about the food itself, he believes.
“Fifty years from now, we’ll look back and what we know about food will look very different,” he emphasized.
Editor’s note: Sara Wyant is publisher of Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc., www.Agri-Pulse.com.