FDA Turns to Emerging Tech to Secure the Food System

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The agency wants to implement new digital resources like blockchain to disrupt America’s old way of tracking food to its source.

As it ushers in a new age of “smarter” food safety, the Food and Drug Administration plans to leverage emerging technology to bolster transparency and traceability across America’s food system.

“Some people predict that the food system will change more in the next eight years than it’s changed in the last 100 and that will be a good thing,” Frank Yiannas, the FDA’s deputy commissioner for food policy and response, said at an ACT-IAC event in Washington this week. “But we need to digitize the food system—there’s no question about it.”

The current paradigm to trace food from its source—across packing houses and warehouses for shipment and onto American store shelves—is largely paper-based, Yiannas said. This outdated form of tracking means safety experts can often only trace food items from one location back and one location forward.

“You can see if you are trying to chase this down on paper it takes a long time to tell where these products came from,” he said.

This poses problems in the midst of dangerous outbreaks. Yiannas said the FDA needed several days to find the farms that romaine lettuce contaminated with e.coli originated from during a multistate outbreak last November.

“The damage that that does to consumer trust is hard to really fully measure,”  Yiannas said. “And while the food system is pretty safe, unfortunately, these incidents happen.”

The outbreak prompted the FDA to release a statement on “the new era of smarter food safety,” outlining how the agency hopes to leverage digital tools and resources to improve food safety across the nation.

“Let me just tell you, ‘smarter food safety’ is not just a tagline,” he said. “It really is a different way of thinking about how we solve food safety challenges.”

Before joining the FDA, Yiannas launched a pilot at Walmart using blockchain technology to trace and track mangoes from farm source to store shelf.

“So to make a long story short, we started working with small farmers and a technology provider ... to start digitizing that and capturing the tracking information on blockchain,” he said.

Using blockchain technology, the team could track the source of a specific bag of mangoes in 2.2 seconds, compared to the “weeks” it took using the old paper-based system.

“What we are after is more transparency in the food system. By creating this digital footprint, you can shine a light on all the different stakeholders in the food system and really create transparency,” he said. “I persuaded them that technologies like blockchain could do for food traceability what the internet did for communication.”

In his last effort before leaving Walmart to join FDA, Yiannas helped the retailer work to make all fresh leafy green suppliers—like those involved in last year’s e.coli outbreak—use blockchain as a traceability solution.

The deputy commissioner said as a decentralized and distributed system, blockchain has proven to be a suitable technology that can foster a more digital and traceable food system.

Yiannas is applying his learnings at FDA to help incentivize blockchain use within the public sector and also addressing the government’s role in setting standards and interoperability requirements for new technologies. He said before he worked for the agency, he gave a testimony to Congress pushing them to “stay out of the way” when it came to blockchain.

Half a year into his new role inside government, the deputy commissioner wishes he would’ve answered differently. He now sees that public and private partnerships will be most critical in the development of new emerging technology ecosystems.  

“I spent 30 years in the private sector and I think there's a lot the private sector can do to scale these solutions. I am now on the other side of the fence and I know there's a lot FDA and public agencies can do,” he said. “But what's become crystal clear to me over these last six months is that there is so much more we can do through working together.”