EY - Hand-using-phone-application-detail-with-vegetable-garden

How to advance food safety for a more connected and digital food system

The FDA’s “New Era of Smarter Food Safety” is here and requires a modernized, technology-centric approach to food safety.

In brief

  • The FDA’s priorities include improving rapid track and trace and response to food contamination and outbreaks, and promoting a culture of food safety.
  • Food and agribusiness companies should modernize through technology, established frameworks, process and organizational efficiencies.

Why food safety and why now?

The world’s food supply is in a state of dynamic change. Evolving consumer preferences, increased global connectivity and a greater emphasis on environmentally friendly initiatives create the need for an agile food system. As in any time of change, companies need to consider the new risks in a reimagined food system, finding new ways to manage controls to maintain food safety and institutional trust. Once-local issues can now become widespread foodborne illness outbreaks impacting companies, their customers and their consumers. In response to these risks and improved means to effectively manage, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is taking action to protect public health and boost the safety of our food supply. To meet the evolving FDA expectations, organizations across the food value chain must transform their operations with investments in food safety modernization.

Annual economic burden
The estimated annual economic burden of foodborne illness in the United States, in addition to industry recall costs

In July 2020, the FDA launched “New Era of Smarter Food Safety – FDA’s Blueprint for the Future.” With a thesis of “modern times require modern approaches,” this blueprint establishes FDA food safety priorities for the next decade via four core pillars: tech-enabled traceability, smarter tools and approaches for prevention and outbreak response, new business models and retail modernization, and food safety culture.

While the FDA prefers to work alongside the private sector, its role as a regulatory agency affords it several mechanisms to drive change. For example, in relation to its tech-enabled traceability pillar, the FDA proposed a new traceability regulation in September 2020. Enforcement is another mechanism to drive change and, after a long period of regulatory education, many in the industry anticipate an uptick in enforcement.

Within a transforming food system, the FDA’s blueprint affords food and agriculture companies the opportunity to evaluate their operations and innovate their future. Meeting elevated FDA expectations requires a step change in improvement. Fortunately, the industry can build on the experience of other industries as it makes investments in technologies, frameworks, process improvements and organizational efficiencies.

Food safety: from regulation to cross-industry collaboration

The New Era of Smarter Food Safety is built on a regulatory foundation, the Food Safety Modernization Act, which established science and risk-based protections, along with prevention-oriented regulatory frameworks. The FDA is taking these regulations one step further, setting goals for the government, as well as industry, retail, manufacturing and public health organizations.

Nontraditional stakeholders bring fresh ideas to creatively solve challenges. Key among those stakeholders are technology companies, financial organizations, insurance companies, academia and consulting firms that bring a cross-sector perspective. Other sectors have implemented innovative concepts and are reaping the rewards from technological advances such as artificial intelligence (AI), the internet of things (IoT), connected management systems and predictive analytics. For example, the health care sector has been able to leverage IoT, making remote monitoring possible and unleashing the potential to keep patients safe and healthy, and empowering physicians to deliver to their patients in a unique way. While different, food and agriculture companies can consider how leveraging IoT could similarly disrupt by building trust and transparency in the supply chain, particularly with customers.

Nontraditional stakeholders are uniquely positioned and can be empowered by the food sector to import knowledge gleaned from cross-sector experiences. Fresh, forward-looking approaches can be created using emerging technology with predictive capabilities to speed outbreak response, accelerates prevention and build trust.

A strong food safety culture requires management buy-in and consistent reinforcement.

Food safety requires connection and collaboration

The New Era of Smarter Food Safety is more than just a new set of enforcement priorities; it is an opportunity to capitalize on information, innovation and internal and external relationships for the betterment of the company and its consumers. Successful implementation of the four pillars creates the foundation for safety, traceability and sustainability to strengthen trust in the food system.

1. A tech-enabled plan for traceability and accountability

As data acquisition and communication technologies rapidly mature, more digital inputs are enhancing the scientific application of detecting foodborne illness, thus enabling the food value chain to determine, with specificity, affected food. But within legacy systems, the traceability challenge remains: once determined, how do we find that food?

The FDA is utilizing genome sequencing to pinpoint specific organisms given their unique DNA. Identifying the pathogen is only the first step toward removing the threat posed by unsafe food. Next, investigators gather information and build a picture of the entire possible risk. Using this picture, they conduct investigations to determine the root cause and necessary corrective measures. Still, it can take months after a person falls ill to actually identify and recall contaminated food.

To harness the benefits of scientific progress, current record-keeping methodologies across the food system must be digitized into a congruent ecosystem. Today’s largely paper-based system continues to impede action and stakeholders’ disparate digital systems are rarely connected. Each manual process and paper form is an opportunity for lost records or data entry error, making tracing efforts difficult and time intensive. The longer the traceability processes take, the more delays impact an investigator’s ability to gather meaningful clues to confirm the source of contamination and the root cause. This results in a greater number of consumers who are put in harm’s way; therefore, the regulatory, financial and reputational costs also increase with recall time.

Today’s challenge is understanding traceability options and determining how to move forward to attain sufficient[1] traceability and add more efficiency and value. Consider using a multi-faceted approach to updating your traceability infrastructure. Blockchain provides an unalterable record of traceability and transparency into each preceding transaction in the supply chain. Sensors provide another means of tracking in addition to capturing real-time environmental data, production state and shipping times. IoT and AI will likely also play a role in improving track-and-trace capability. Making this investment comes with positive externalities in the form of data, the uses of which include improving supplier management, transportation channels and packaging specifications, and informing capital expenditure decisions.

2. Smarter tools for food contamination prevention and outbreak response

Data and analytics are the key factors in preventing recalls and associated adverse health consequences. Predictive analytics can identify when and where contamination is likely to occur; AI can perform imported food screenings at ports of entry; and genome sequencing can be used by regulatory and public health agencies to aid outbreak investigation.

As predictive analytics helps to identify when and where contamination is likely to occur, supplier audits can be utilized to drive reliability and prevention. However, this outcome can only be implemented at scale once the quality and compatibility of data sources are adopted throughout the entirety of the value chain to build a more responsive and consumer-focused food system.

The goal is to prevent contaminated products from entering the food supply in the first place. A combination of data analytics, AI, and remote and third-party audits can transform prevention controls, drive reliability and reduce long-term costs.

3. New business models and retail modernization for food and agriculture companies

Consumer preference moves the food industry. The COVID-19 pandemic is a clear example of how quickly the production and distribution of food must adjust to the changing demands of consumers. This impacts distributors, manufacturers and retailers, all of which must address food safety controls such as temperature, cross-contamination, product traceability and other regulatory issues.

During the pandemic, many food and agribusiness companies found their existing equipment and infrastructure to be insufficient in response to rapidly changing customer expectations. New food products and delivery mechanisms have unique hazards and quality issues that must be identified and mitigated, and new food safety and quality systems – when processes are not optimized – can hinder product speed to market.

Earlier this year, one grocery retailer began using small autonomous robots to make deliveries to customers within a mile of its location. This new service illustrates how the food industry can innovate and address challenges by using technology.

New business models like e-commerce can present a challenge for retailers because new food distribution channels come with new risks. It is vital for food and agriculture companies to educate themselves on these new food models and the controls needed to address the risk. Armed with this knowledge, companies can safely explore new channels of delivery to consumers, more diverse revenue models, and generally embrace change more fluidly to respond to future challenges. The FDA is working with regulatory partners to address food safety vulnerabilities, including who “owns” the food, which has regulatory consequences.

4. Food safety culture

Culture is as important as any tangible asset or metric in the success of a company. Culture is defined as the “how” of the organization: how things get done, how people work together, how people are motivated and how people talk and make decisions. It brings to life the “why” (purpose) and the “what” (the corporate vision, strategy and objectives).

To improve food safety, the culture must complement improvements in process or technology, whether on farms, in food facilities, with distributors and retailers or in restaurants and consumers’ homes. How your employees at all levels think about food safety will shape their choices and actions, and consequently your business.

The value of shifting culture is not unique to food safety. It is a common practice for changes in corporate strategy or organizational transformation to underline culture. There is much to gain by leveraging established methods by culture change specialists as applied to food safety. Change requires a clear articulation of the primary orientation of employees, the characteristics that best describe how work is done, and which work should stop, start or be kept. From there, a blueprint can be drafted to both address behavior and create an ecosystem in which the desired culture can thrive.

Culture change is difficult and requires diligent attention at the individual, team and organizational levels. When done right, culture is not viewed as a soft intangible, but rather as the total of processes and norms that define the operating model and environment. Sustainable change can be achieved by consistency in messaging, appealing to shared values and a using a multipronged approach that applies systemic thinking.

Contributor: Colleen Webster, Senior Manager, Food and Agribusiness, Ernst & Young LLP
The views expressed by the author are not necessarily those of Ernst & Young LLP or other members of the global EY organization.


Our dynamic world necessitates a sustainable, nimble and trustworthy food system to meet 21st-century challenges. Globalization has expanded the supply chain, introducing new potential points of contamination at each stage, from grower to consumption. Population growth, the associated demographics, global climate change and even pandemic-induced supplier regionalization will increasingly challenge and disrupt established supply chains, resulting in new opportunities and shifting risks. Consumers are also driving change by demanding safer and more diverse, sustainable and affordable foods. Food and agribusiness companies must cater to perpetually changing tastes for the product as well as the buying and delivery models.

About this article

Related Food and Agribusiness articles

How to transform your supply chain in the era of smarter food safety

The disruptions of the pandemic will forever alter supply chain dynamics and best practices. Learn more.