Anyone who has heard Frank Yiannas speak has probably heard his “mango” story. It dates back to his time working for the world’s largest retailer and prior to joining the Food and Drug Administration in 2018 as deputy commissioner for food policy and response. But the story underscores the important role technology can play in current efforts to improve the safety of our food supply and how agency leaders are trying to be more transformative.

“I took a package of sliced mangoes purchased at a Walmart store on the table and told our team of food safety and logistics professionals to tell me where those mangoes came from,” Yiannas told Agri-Pulse in an exclusive interview. “You know how long it took them? Six days, 18 hours and 26 minutes.”  

Fast-forward, and his team went to work with small mango growers in Central and South America, along with distributors, processing facilities, warehouses and retail stores, capturing the data using a type of distributed ledger technology known as blockchain. It wasn’t long before he could literally scan a package and trace those mangoes back to their source in 2.2 seconds. “Seven days to 2.2 seconds,” he emphasized. He moved from being a blockchain skeptic to a distributed ledger fan.

The example is important because, in the event of a food scare, “people might avoid all mangoes, and the livelihoods of mango farmers who have nothing to do with the illnesses or outbreak are destroyed,” he emphasized. “On the other hand, if you don't react quickly, seven days is a long time for people to potentially contaminate mangoes.”

U.S. romaine lettuce growers witnessed this scenario firsthand a few years ago: Federal regulators identified food safety outbreaks and advised consumers to avoid all sources of their product rather than targeting a specific source or region.

Yiannas said the more important thing from the mango exercise is that “it wasn't just about food safety and traceability. It provided a level of food transparency that we didn't have before.”  

“I could see in almost real time how those mangoes traveled and where were the bottlenecks. For example, the shipment sat way too long crossing the customs border between Mexico and the U.S.” 

He saw opportunities for removing one day from distribution of those mangoes from farm to store — a day of additional shelf life for the consumer and a lot less spoilage in a distribution center or warehouse.

Yiannas said tracking doesn't have to be done with blockchain, but with more centralized databases. “One of the key components is that we have to create data standards to allow the entire food system that's big and decentralized to speak a universal language of food traceability.” 

FDA issued a proposed food traceability rule in the fall of 2020 that Yiannas said the agency is on target to finalize in November.

While Yiannas is not at liberty to talk about the final rule, in the proposal “people can see that we really focused on standardizing key data elements — what we call critical tracking events — so that we could stay technology-agnostic, yet allow the food system to speak one common language of food traceability and transparency.”

His sense is that these new tools are becoming so prevalent that this type of tracking is already in use for some products, and that growers and food producers will probably comply using technology.

“I think you're going to see in the future, more and more foods being transparent, where the consumer or regulator will know exactly where that food came from, in real time. Food traceability at the speed of thought, and that allows platforms to allow producers to better communicate with consumers what their product is, what's different about it.”

As a self-proclaimed “foodie,” Yiannas said the 20th Century was about the industrial revolution that enabled farmers and ranchers to produce more food than ever before. In the digital age, food will increasingly have a digital footprint and consumers will have the ability to know much more about the food itself, he believes.

“Fifty years from now, we’ll look back and what we know about food will look very different.”

Yiannas says that “our role is not to create winners and losers but to create standards that allow these technologies to scale for the benefit of producers and consumers.” He believes that digital technologies will allow small and medium producers to better compete with very large enterprises.

Like many federal agencies, embracing new technology can be difficult because employees are not trained or accustomed to new systems and often, their own data and computing capacity may be light years behind the industries they regulate.

Yiannas admitted that FDA “systems are not up to par where they need to be for the 21st Century. But he noted that Robert Califf has returned to the agency as commissioner after working for technology giant Google.

“He knows the power of technology to unleash data and empower smart risk management decisions,” Yiannas said.

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As recently as last week, Califf told the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture that his agency can’t give the American public what it needs for public health without a really strong relationship with NASDA members and staff, but also called for the use of more information technology to enhance their relationship. Califf also has asked the Reagan-Udall Foundation to evaluate the agency’s human foods program, “with a mind towards giving the food side of the FDA the attention it deserves.” 

Asked about the timetable for finalizing and giving growers more certainty under the Food Safety and Modernization Act, Yiannas said, “frankly, there’s more work to be done.

“This FSMA journey and the produce safety rule is fairly new; it was passed in 2011,” he added.

Yiannas suggested that FDA and Congress got it right when they said, “let's educate before and while we regulate,” and there's been a lot of education done at the state and community levels.

“But this is a journey, and we continue to mature some of our food safety practices and learn through science. This idea of training being done at the farm level with states and NASDA is one that probably has a very long runway and doesn't go away.

“For example, the agency just proposed a new ag water standard. There’s going to be work around education and training around ag water and other aspects of the produce safety rule as we learn more through evolving science for a long time.”

As the science evolves, Yiannas emphasized the need for FDA to continue to modernize and adapt with the times — a challenge that industry observers suggest is an uphill battle for an agency often steeped in past traditions.

But it’s not been without effort. In 2020, the FDA’s top brass convened staff and external experts to develop a vision of what needs to happen for the next decade and came up with the idea and blueprint for a “new era” of smarter food safety.

The new blueprint involves four broad themes:

1. Tech-enabled traceability and transparency. Yiannas said the idea of greater transparency in the food system is a good thing, but in reality, there’s still a lot of anonymity and we don't really know where products came from or how they were produced.

2. Smarter tools and approaches to prevention. For example, FDA is in the third phase of a pilot that is leveraging machine learning to inspect seafood imports. In the U.S., about 94% of all seafood consumed by Americans is imported. “There are millions and millions of seafood shipment lines in our database, but we now have the power of machine learning that can take large volumes of data and find patterns that the human mind can't find.” Yiannas said this can strengthen predictive capabilities of which future shipments might be ones that inspectors should focus on.

3. New business models and retail modernization. The food system is constantly changing with new cell-cultured foods, plant-based foods, and gene-edited crops. Yiannas said the agency needs to keep up with the way the food system, as well as retail, is changing dramatically.

4. Food safety culture. “We're trying to do a better job of blending the concepts of food science with human behavior and organizational culture; trying to influence people to say “yes” to food safety, not for fear of an FDA inspection.

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