An oft-overlooked clause of the US FDA’s Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) has the potential to drive global change in the way we sustainably source our food, providing a blueprint for governments around the world on how to create a lasting impact through regulation: digital traceability.
In order to adequately and sustainably feed the world’s growing population, we can’t focus solely on food production. We have to also look at reducing food waste. Digital traceability gives organizations the ability to locate when and where foodborne illnesses begin.
Knowing where sources of contamination occur along a food product’s journey from farm to table allows us to identify which product is contaminated, but equally important, which product is not. Too often, entire shelves and chains of potentially uncontaminated food products are thrown away due to the uncertainty and possibility of exposure to foodborne illnesses. But with digital traceability in place, we can ensure that we’re only pulling contaminated food prior to it affecting other products and making its way onto your dinner table. That means less wasted product—and that’s just the start of digital traceability’s potential for sustainability and responsible sourcing and handling.
The potential to protect health and reduce waste
In the US, the FDA is tasked with ensuring that the food that Americans consume is safe, which is no easy feat. The CDC estimates that 48 million Americans (one in six) get sick from food illnesses each year, of which 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die from foodborne diseases. In 2011, the FDA launched the Food Safety Modernization Act to tackle some of the most prevalent food safety challenges. The major shift in focus was to specifically address and proactively prevent contamination in the food supply, rather than just responding to it.
When the act was initially released, it was missing a key piece of legislation around product traceability. Traceability provides some of the most important insights and leading indicators required to anticipate and prevent foodborne illness. When companies and governments are able to see exactly where each product came from and where it’s been throughout its supply chain, they can anticipate where issues could occur and proactively remove risky products from future shelves. Especially in the event of identified cases of foodborne illness, this traceability information can help identify where the contamination stemmed from and what products need to be removed from which store shelves in order to prevent additional people from becoming sick.
In addition to preventing foodborne illness, traceability data can also help dramatically reduce food waste. When recalls happen, it often takes companies a long time to sort through their paperwork and records to identify where contaminated products came from. If the company can’t identify those quickly enough, they need to remove all of the products in the contaminated category from store shelves. This typically includes large quantities of products that may be fine, but can’t be proven as such.
Recalls typically make big headlines, dramatically affecting shoppers’ preferences and behaviors. Many people will avoid products that they’ve read recalls about, as they won’t trust that their grocery stores or restaurants are sophisticated enough to have removed all the contaminated products. This lack of consumer trust is often justified, as many companies don’t know if their products have been affected or not. This further exacerbates the food waste issue as many safe products go unsold and expire.
More than food: Maximizing traceability efforts can reduce deforestation and greenhouse gas emission
Today, the technology exists to instantly and precisely identify contaminated products. However, companies often resist implementing and leveraging this technology due to the added effort involved in capturing the required data. It’s also important that all members of a supply chain participate all the way back to the farms, as partial visibility is rarely able to provide the insights necessary to prevent and mitigate cases of foodborne illness.
In situations like these, it’s necessary for governments to step in and enforce regulation to drive change for the common good. That’s exactly what the FDA has done with their FSMA Rule 204(d). This rule on traceability mandates that any company that processes or sells products in 16 categories of high-risk foods must maintain digital traceability records for their products.
On a global scale, this rule sets a strong example for how a government agency can help tackle an issue that will have widespread implications. If a rule like this can help reduce food waste, we could be in a much better position to feed the growing global population. This reduction in food waste can also help alleviate the need for farmers to extract more value from their land using unsustainable farming practices that risk leaving the land unusable.
In the case of palm oil, which is used in nearly 50% of the packaged products in supermarkets including pizza, doughnuts, chocolate, deodorant, shampoo, toothpaste and lipstick, the product has become a major driver of deforestation due to unsustainable harvesting practices. In addition to destroying the habitats of already endangered species including the orangutan and the Sumatran rhino, this deforestation accelerates the conversion of carbon-rich peat soil and produces millions of tons of greenhouse gases, contributing to climate change. These unsustainable farming practices put future generations at risk of dealing with an even worse challenge to feed their population.
If this rule helps the industry prevent and respond more quickly to incidents of foodborne illness, it could save thousands of lives. If this rule reduces our current level of food waste by half, we would have more than enough food available to feed the estimated future population of 2050. And if the rule does all of that, it will reduce the drivers for deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions.
While this rule may seem small by a global standard, the implications are immensely positive, and could drive the use of technology to provide a safer and more sustainable supply chain for food.
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