Food Safety: Regulatory and Technology Challenges

Two landmark initiatives have developed over the past two decades that have revolutionized how the food & beverage industry is regulated: the FDA’s Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) and the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI). Together, this public set of rules and the private food industry organization serve as benchmarks for food safety standards for manufacturers, as well as encompassing farm assurance standards.

The FSMA is in the process of transforming the nation’s food safety system. The focus has been shifted considerably—from responding to foodborne illnesses to preventing them. FSMA rules are designed to make clear what specific actions must be taken at each of the following points to prevent contamination. The rules consist of:

  • Preventive Controls Rules for Human and Animal Food
  • Produce Safety Rule
  • Foreign Supplier Verification Program (FSVP) Rule
  • Accredited Third-Party Certification
  • Sanitary Transportation Rule
  • Intentional Adulteration Rule
  • Compliance with FSMA

 

The Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) is a private organization that was established and managed by the Consumer Goods Forum (an international trade association), under Belgian law in May 2000. The GFSI maintains a scheme to benchmark food safety standards, as stated above, for both manufacturers and farmers.

 

Richard Stier, Consulting Food Scientist, and contributor to Food Engineering magazine.

The GFSI has approved various private audits, which help augment the minimum standards set by the FSMA. Richard Stier, Consulting Food Scientist, and a regular contributor to Food Engineering magazine, recently discussed the myriad regulatory hurdles food processors face and stressed that most regulations only establish minimum requirements. Therefore, the GFSI can be seen as the next step in food safety management.

 

“The GFSI has current gold-standard mandates, such as the SQF Audit and FSSC 22000, which are the audits that buyers want food processors to adopt,” Stier stated. Many buyers’ supplier-approval programs include the demand that suppliers, packagers, etc., comply with one of the GFSI audits.

The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) and the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) work together to shift focus from responding to foodborne illnesses to preventing them.

What Drives Food Safety?

 

According to a recent report from the Cornerstone Capital Group titled “Food Safety: In a State of Transformation,” food safety encompasses “…the practices and conditions promoted across a food supply chain with the intention of ensuring food quality and preventing contamination and foodborne illness.”

 

In order to address food safety risks in an increasingly global, complex supply chain, the report identifies certain behavioral/demographic, regulatory, and technological factors which can be considered “catalysts” for the food industry’s transition towards more proactive, rather than reactive, food safety strategies.

 

Consumers are increasing their demands for high-quality, healthy food products; but conversely, they also want more pre-packaged, ready-to-eat (RTE) options. These behavioral shifts demand strategies to meet the various needs of shifting consumer preferences. In the developing world, rising incomes are behind a drive for more animal proteins, as well. This could bring more foodborne illnesses to the population—especially in not-yet-developed countries that already struggle with regulatory oversight and quality control.

 

On the regulatory side, regulation is a significant driver of food safety advances, and some iteration of food safety regulation standards, in the form of the FSMA or others, have been implemented in both developed and developing countries.

 

Big Tech Augments Traceability, Accountability, Safety

 

Technological factors loom large for the future of all industries—and the F&B industry is no exception. Tech innovations are changing how business is conducted across the supply chain. Improved network connectivity; cheaper, more efficient computer hardware and software; and highly advanced sensor technology continually bring about new applications for food safety management.

 

The accelerated advancements include supply chain technology and innovations in automation. The Internet of Things (IoT) allows integration of items from the physical world with computer-based systems. IoT-empowered food safety systems enable automated data collection and analysis, continuous monitoring, remote real-time accessibility, and digital record-keeping.

 

When infrastructure is connected, opportunities abound for more efficient food safety accountability and tracing capabilities. Radio frequency identification (RFID) technology, in the form of RFID tags, also offers promise for the advancement of food safety.

 

Sean Baldry, CRSP, is Product Marketing Manager, Safety & Health Solutions, at Cority. The company provides environmental, health & safety, and quality management (EHSQ) software solutions across multiple industries, including F&B and pharmaceuticals.

 

In order to use any of the above-mentioned emerging technologies, and to realize their full value, an organization needs to have a robust software infrastructure in place to aggregate, assimilate, and analyze the data to generate meaningful insights to drive decision-making. “Otherwise,” stated Baldry, “it’s just a new toy. We are spending a lot of energy right now engaging in great conversations with organizations on the value that an investment in EHSQ software can provide.” This can address everything from their ability to manage the impact of a pandemic, for example, and/or health and safety risks, in general. “While not a panacea, digitally transforming your management system can be another step forward in improving the efficiency of your health & safety processes.”

Food safety systems empowered by the IoT enable automated data collection and analysis, continuous monitoring, remote real-time accessibility, and digital record-keeping.

Tackling COVID-19: Government & Food Industry’s Responses

 

With the recent COVID-19 pandemic, government agencies are taking the situation very seriously, and food industry professionals are especially cognizant of the crisis. Food & beverage manufacturers are addressing food safety concerns and taking extra precautions to protect consumers (as well as their employees) during the outbreak. After all, everyone, regardless of whether they are sheltering/working from home or are part of the “essential workforce,” needs to eat—and they need to trust that the F&B industry has their safety at the forefront.

 

Here are some food safety/supply chain resources that can help those in the F&B industry respond to the coronavirus outbreak:

  • FMI: The Food Industry Association has put together a downloadable guide titled “Coronavirus and Pandemic Preparedness for the Food Industry” (updated April 8, 2020). There is also a “Pandemic Response Checklist” that includes intervention strategies and how to develop crisis team management and protocols.
  • FDA:  FDA is focused on the medical side of things (identifying fraudulent health products; monitoring the medical supply chain, etc.). Therefore, the agency has postponed foreign inspections and domestic facility inspections, unless they are considered “mission-critical.” As the COVID-19 situation evolves, there might be more that impacts the U.S. food supply.
  • USDA: The USDA’s website guides readers on what steps the agency is taking to ensure food access in affected areas, as well as agricultural research, economic impact and much more. It also addresses consumers’ FAQs in an easy-to-access format.

 

Given all the challenges facing the F&B industry, it’s clear manufacturers need stay abreast of all updates regarding food safety. Added precautionary measures, meant to protect both customers and workers, should be implemented and remain in place as long as state and federal regulations deem necessary. Keeping people healthy amid a global pandemic has its challenges, but those in the F&B industry are in the unique position of being able to lead by example.

    Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a contributing author and not necessarily Gray.

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