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Food Safety
You have questions. We have answers. 

As science of food professionals, you’ve seen the statistics and know what’s at stake. Not only does a foodborne illness outbreak present a significant health and safety risk to those impacted. It also can have a significant economic impact on all parties involved. 

There are no compromises when it comes to food safety. This summer, SHIFT20 attendees had the chance to hear directly from U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Deputy Commissioner for Food Policy and Response Frank Yiannas, who spoke about the New Era of Smarter Food Safety blueprint and what the future of food safety would look like. We asked IFT’s resident expert, Senior Food Traceability and Safety Scientist Thomas Burke, MPH, to shed some light on some of your burning questions following the session. Read on to see what he had to say.

Q: What is the first step to help a food company establish a food safety culture?

Burke: Mutual respect among all components of the food safety system is essential. It is critical to recognize and respect the role each constituent plays in ensuring the safety of food products, from food handlers to technical staff to management, and everyone in between. 

Q: How can you ensure that a company will report factual data?

Burke: Data verification can be accomplished in a variety of methods, including 3rd party verification, technology implementation, and cross checking. Ultimately, connecting transactional aspects of supply chain management with food safety and quality indicators will bring about sufficient proofs of data validity. Focusing on standards and metric development will enable tests and methods for data validation.

Q: Do you anticipate (or have you already seen) any resistance from industry players for whom supply chain *opacity* is considered an asset? Is everyone all-in on transparency?

Burke: In short, yes, supply chain opacity is an asset, especially in the upstream components of the supply chain. The change toward transparency should note this and build in mechanisms to appropriately account for data utility and governance across supply chain roles. Producers and processors should be empowered through transparency.

Q: Why is blockchain better than simple excel files that are shared?

Burke: Blockchain, through decentralization and immutability, gives a level of assurance to data integrity not available through more conventional data sharing arrangements. It is not necessarily better in every scenario, but it is an emerging tool to be used for connecting disparate information streams throughout supply chains.

Q: How challenging do you think it's going to be for developing countries to implement high-tech, high-touch?

Burke: High tech and developing economies are not mutually exclusive. For evidence of this, many of the world’s fastest internet connections were in developing economies, due to the “newness” of the infrastructure being built utilizing the latest technology. The key for bringing about effective use of the latest technologies in developing countries is developing institutional capacity for its dissemination and industry support (i.e., the high touch). In the United States, new agricultural and food technologies are often supported by extension services of land grant institutions. Similar structures of public-private partnership can encourage technology adoption at the local level in developing economies.

Q: In developing countries, a lot of people rely on selling food informally, which is a threat to food safety. Do you have any ideas on how to address this issue?

Burke: Realistically, most informal food distribution is the result of economic constraints. Costs in licensing/training, taxation policy, or even corruption may factor into the equation. Ensuring that culturally competent and cost-effective educational and training resources are available is a first step to bettering food safety in developing countries.

Q: How can the COVID-19 pandemic bring positive change in food safety and safety culture?

Burke: Collaboration and innovation have been two forces which COVID has brought to the forefront. Collaboration across supply chain partners and competitors to ensure the safety of food, and innovation to rethink some of the conventional ways of thinking about food safety.

Q: With seafood being a mostly imported food product to the U.S., how do we create a global traceability system for food fraud prevention that is cost effective and easily accessible?

Burke: The Global Dialogue on Seafood Traceability has promulgated a standard focused on catch legality and mitigating food fraud in supply chains. It is designed to be technology agnostic and actionable for harvesters, to enable end-to-end traceability. By utilizing global standards, solutions can compete on usability and value-added features over proprietary data formats. Companies may have common expectations on both the data being collected and how it is conveyed, a concept called interoperability.

Q: If 94% of seafood is imported and lately, we have heard more about the presence of micro plastics in our food, how do you think we can guarantee the safety of seafood coming from other countries?

Burke: Guaranteeing safety is near impossible, but improving the ability to systematically analyze the who, what, where, and how of food supply chain processes can improve the safety of all foods, especially when external environmental factors like microplastics come about. Then, information about food flows can be analyzed alongside other datasets to arrive at interventions in sourcing, processing, and distribution of seafood.

Q: What needs to change in teaching food safety in universities?

Burke: Food safety is increasingly becoming digital and human focused, simultaneously, and education should reflect that. Especially when it comes to digitization, skills in database administration and data analytics will regularly become part of food safety specialists’ skillsets.

About the Author

Thomas Burke is a food traceability and safety scientist, Global Food Traceability Center, Institute of Food Technologists (tburke@ift.org).

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