U.S. FDA’s 2020 budget proposal highlights tech revolutions in food safety

Focusing on 2020 may feel premature when so much of 2019 lies ahead of us, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has explained the rationale behind its 2020 budget proposals, and their points illustrate well the technological developments that are about to revolutionize food safety culture both within and outside of the U.S.

It’s been a few years since the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), which regulates the U.S. food supply but has also influenced policies around the world, shifted the focus from responsive to preventive in terms of outbreaks and contamination of food. Now, technology is catching up with the goals that FSMA set. The FDA’s proposed budget was planned around making the most of the rapidly expanding capabilities now afforded to them to better protect public health, even in the face of new challenges posed by increasing globalization.

Whole genome sequencing

Genomics has already made a huge splash in the agricultural sector, and it’s beginning to at the next step on the road from farm to fork as well.

Whole genome sequencing (WGS) reveals the entire DNA structure of an organism, which allows processors and foodborne illness outbreak investigators to identify the particular strain of a foodborne pathogen that has been detected in food. They can continue using WGS along the food supply chain, looking for where else this strain appears, ultimately identifying the source of contamination.

The FDA notes WGS as an example of a resource it can use to ensure that contaminated food is removed from the marketplace as quickly as possible.

“This technology has made it easier to determine the source of contaminated food associated with human illness, and to better identify foodborne outbreaks that previously would have gone undetected,” the agency said in a recent statement. The FDA has requested increased funding to reach the manpower it needs to handle the increased number of cases that can now be detected thanks to modern technology like WGS.

Track and trace technology

Blockchain is another big tech term dropped by the FDA in its statement.

Blockchain systems are essentially digital logbooks. They are secure, decentralized record-keeping systems that operate over the Internet. They can be used to monitor a continuously growing list of records — like food supply chains — that are tied together in a digitally encrypted format. Many expect blockchain to influence the way we label food products in coming years. Walmart has already announced that its suppliers of leafy greens will need to upload data about their products to a blockchain system.

“(Blockchain) can greatly assist in warning consumers about risks with specific foods and in implementing more targeted and efficient recalls,” said the FDA. “Such technologies can reduce the time it takes to find a food source from days or weeks, to minutes or even seconds, in certain cases.”

The FDA notes that not only can this tech protect public health, it can also help food producers avoid the loss of millions of dollars in profits due to recalls.

Going global

The FDA also hopes to expand its oversight of food imported to the U.S., advancing its Foreign Supplier Verification Programs and Import Alert programs, which impact all non-U.S. food companies that export food to the U.S.

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