WASHINGTON – Government and industry are working to ensure the safety of the US food supply remains strong during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic even as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been forced to curtail certain inspections and other activities for the duration, Frank Yiannas, the FDA’s deputy commissioner for food policy and response, asserted in an interview published by the agency April 16.

Mr. Yiannas outlined changes to FDA inspection activities during the pandemic, the importance of industry carrying out its responsibilities under the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) and how lessons learned during the pandemic may shape the approach of both the agency and industry to ensuring the safety of the food supply in the future.

“For the time being, we are not doing in-person routine surveillance inspections of farms and food facilities in this country and others that export foods to the United States,” Mr. Yiannas confirmed. “We are doing this to limit exposure to the virus and out of concern for the safety of FDA investigators, state investigators and workers in these farms and facilities as people all over the world are sheltering in place.”

Mr. Yiannas said the FDA is still conducting critical inspections when needed.

“Such inspections could be necessitated by natural disasters, outbreaks of food illness, Class 1 recalls and, in some cases, inspections of firms with a poor track record when it comes to food safety,” he said.

With regard to imported foods, product examinations at the ports of entry continue as informed by the use of PREDICT, the FDA’s risk-based import screening tool.

The FDA also is conducting a limited number of remote inspections involving the electronic submission of records by importers covered by the Foreign Supplier Verification Program requirements.

“We are prioritizing importers of food from foreign suppliers whose onsite food facility or farm inspections have been postponed due to COVID-19,” Mr. Yiannas said.

But most important, Mr. Yiannas pointed to the responsibilities of industry under FSMA, which changed the paradigm on food safety to prevention from detection.

“FDA-regulated facilities are required to have preventive controls in place each and every day to ensure that the foods they produce are safe,” Mr. Yiannas said. “Industry has the primary responsibility to ensure that the foods they produce are safe, and, by and large, they’re doing an amazing job at providing safe and available food to consumers. Clearly, at this critical time, food safety is as important as it has ever been, and we expect food producers to redouble their food safety efforts.”

Asked about the status of the FDA’s forward-looking New Era of Smarter Food Safety initiative, Mr. Yiannas said, “We had planned to publish the New Era of Smarter Food Safety blueprint in March but had to shift our efforts to pandemic response.”

The New Era initiative announced last year aims to create a more digital, traceable and safer food system by leveraging new technologies, analytical tools and approaches to keep pace with the rapid changes underway in the production and distribution of food.

“We have been working behind the scenes on the framework that will support this work going forward and will publish the blueprint when the time is right,” Mr. Yiannas said. “But the issues and challenges we’ve seen in our pandemic response has shown me how timely this work is and how valuable it will be in the future.

“For example, part of the New Era work involves dealing with the reality of e-commerce as more and more consumers order foods online that are delivered right to their door.

“We have been considering what steps we need to take to ensure the safety of those foods in how they are produced, packaged and transported. When we first started talking about this, we were anticipating that 20% of groceries would be ordered online by 2023. That benchmark may have been blown out of the water by consumers sheltering in place. I don’t see that trend reversing when the crisis has passed.”

Another core element of the New Era initiative is to foster and support food safety cultures on farms and in food facilities.

“We do not believe we will make dramatic improvements in reducing the burden of foodborne disease without addressing how employees think about food safety and how they demonstrate a commitment to this goal in how they do their jobs,” Mr. Yiannas said. “It’s clear to me that a food safety culture is also one that protects the employees from risks associated with workers who are sick, regardless of the type of virus or bacteria, and supports the maintenance of clean and sanitized facilities.”