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Column: FDA Blueprint A Start, But NGA Eyes Enhanced Food Safety

Greg Ferrara election
Greg Ferrara
by Greg Ferrara, president and CEO, National Grocers Association

For the past several months, independent grocery operators have been fixated on safety and sanitation procedures to keep shoppers and associates safe in their stores during the COVID-19 pandemic. While there has been no evidence to suggest that coronavirus can be transmitted by way of food products themselves, that in no way lessens the importance of food safety to grocery retailers. 

And with September being National Food Safety Education Month, it’s a perfect opportunity to review the strides being made toward protecting consumers from foodborne illnesses.

The FDA has heralded what it calls “the new era of smarter food safety” with a blueprint for its course of action, improvement and evolution of food safety guidelines and procedures over the coming decade. 

Focusing on four core elements – data standardization to further traceability, smarter tools and approaches for prevention and outbreak respons, new business models and retail modernization and food safety culture – this blueprint is a strategic step forward in providing the industry with tools for a safer and more trusted food system.

As the representative of more than 1,500 independent retail and wholesale grocer members, NGA late last year offered its insights on how this future of food safety should look. It did so for the benefit of the entire industry and the public, whose trust is so essential to a thriving business.

We’re pleased that the FDA has embraced two key recommendations for enhancing food safety procedures:

Recall data standardization and sharing

Foodborne disease response hinges on the ability of participants in the food supply chain to share quality data so regulators can quickly target the source of an outbreak. 

Industry partners have made significant headway on the development of recall data-sharing systems. Contaminated products are being removed from the supply chain faster.

Unfortunately, data is being reported in a variety of formats, which means the FDA must spend considerable time and resources to reconcile and verify accuracy. 

A standardized data-sharing mechanism and protocol would reduce error rates from duplicative entry requirements, foster improved communication and action to remove contaminated product, reduce waste from inaccurate recalls and promote greater efficiency. 

Challenges and resource constraints across supply chains in developing traceability systems

Data standardization and sharing are fundamental to the development of an effective food safety response system. However, NGA urges FDA to consider the adoption challenges and costs that would arise if the industry is required to invest in expensive and complex technological solutions.

Affordability and complexity should not be a barrier for retailers. The FDA should maintain its voluntary approach in adopting any new technologies. It should first look at existing tools before considering newer methods and models.

Additionally, as the process evolves, we encourage the following:

Enhancing traditional retail food safety

A “new era of smarter food safety” must include a “food safety culture” as a cornerstone for all levels of the food supply chain, especially retailers.

We believe that the most effective method of ensuring that retailers are adhering to industry best practices is through education and training. We recommend that the FDA increase its commitment to educating a wide audience of food industry participants on effective food safety practices. 

Public warnings in advance of recalls

Given the recent public warning in advance of recalls for romaine lettuce, we are concerned about the widespread impact it had on wholesalers, retailers and customers. 

The independent supermarket industry suffered millions of dollars in financial losses because of the multiple romaine E-coli outbreaks. It’s clear that the recall response process is broken and in need of fixing. 

To provide meaningful warning to the public, we ask that the FDA work to provide as much detail as possible regarding the food’s source and distribution channels. 

The result of an overbroad public warning for an entire product category leads to a sharp decrease in sales of that product. It also erodes public trust surrounding the safety of the food product and related categories as well.

NGA members are the last touch to the consumer in the marketplace for food, so we take our responsibility seriously. The independent food retail community is an invaluable partner with government in achieving our mutual goal of ensuring a safe food supply to our customers and local communities.

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