Lessons in COVID-19

Lessons in COVID-19

Date: March 25, 2020

Takeaways for the Future of Food Safety

Erik Malmstrom

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed our dangerous lack of public health readiness to contain the rapid spread of a deadly virus in the US, demonstrated by our insufficient testing capabilities and our inability to effectively track and trace in the early days of the outbreak. While there is no evidence that COVID-19 can be transmitted by food or food packaging, it is fair to question the US food system’s preparedness for pandemics in which food has greater potential to be a carrier. Identifying and addressing weaknesses now has the potential of mitigating the risk of catastrophic health and economic consequences in the future.

In the US, a multi-stakeholder coalition of the Center for Disease Control (CDC), Food and Drug Authority (FDA), Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Authority (USDA-FSIS), and state and local public health authorities is responsible for responding to infections and outbreaks transmitted through food. Enacted in 2011, the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) upgraded the US food safety system for produce and processed food, governed by FDA, by requiring stronger tracking of foodborne illnesses, stronger oversight of food production, stronger preventive controls, and empowering FDA with mandatory recall authority. However, at the time of FSMA’s enactment, Congress did not simultaneously upgrade safety standards for meat and poultry, governed by USDA-FSIS, with food recalls continuing to be almost all voluntary and initiated by manufacturers and distributors.

Consequently, critics believe that fragmentation of the food safety system in the US has resulted in “inconsistent oversight, ineffective coordination, and inefficient use of resources.”¹ Moreover, the current system has led to bifurcated outcomes – total produce and processed food recalls governed by FDA have decreased 34% since the implementation of new food safety plans for food companies in 2016, with the most hazardous recalls (Class I) dropping 54%. Meanwhile, total meat and poultry recalls governed by USDA-FSIS have increased 65% since 2013, with the most hazardous recalls (Class I) increasing by 85%.²

Technological modernization is another challenge and opportunity for food safety. In 2019, the FDA launched a major initiative called “The New Era of Smarter Food Safety” in order to “leverage technology and other tools, to create a more digital, traceable, and safer food system.”³ In many respects, the US food industry lags behind other industries with respect to its level of technological sophistication for ensuring the safety and security of its supply chain. One of the most glaring gaps between current food industry practice and commercially available technology used in other industries pertains to rapid testing for food safety and traceability. As we’ve seen with South Korea and other Asian countries that have most effectively responded to COVID-19, deploying rapid testing, tracking, and tracing technology in healthcare, early and often, can have a decisive impact on containment. Similarly, rapid testing, tracking, and tracing technology is extremely valuable in identifying and removing lethal contaminants in the food chain.

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