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Resilience in Food Safety for 2021: Challenges of product tracking

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Editor’s note: In part three of this four-part series with SafetyChain Software, Food Safety News reviews how food firms can become resilient in the face of 2021’s new challenges, and how resilience will be needed in reducing supply chain risks.

Dr. David Acheson, CEO & President of The Acheson Group, suggests that food firms will need resilience when addressing the challenges that come with product tracking.

Facilitating product tracking
Advancements in product tracking have allowed regulators to quickly find the correct source of a product linked to a foodborne illness. Consumers are used to hearing about outbreaks after they are solved, but they rarely hear about the process, which can be arduous.

Federal, state and local health officials put all the evidence together and pinpoint a food source. It’s only after all this work that an outbreak announcement from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will alert the public.

In more fortunate cases, a company recall or alert from the Food and Drug Administration can alert the public and put consumers on watch if they have bought or consumed the product. An extraordinary amount of work and time goes into tracking the products and finding the original source of the outbreak.

“Yet, challenges still exist around information at the point of sale to the consumer,” Acheson says. “For instance, if a person is sick and gets tested for pathogens such as E. coli, it can take three weeks to get results. Then, officials must piece together information from others who have gotten sick to identify the common denominator.” 

Further complicating this is the fact that it can be hard for consumers to identify the product that made them sick. As most consumers would agree, simply remembering all of the food eaten in the past few days can be difficult. 

Challenges of the process
Conceptually, traceback is simple. But Acheson points out that there are many factors that can impact its effectiveness.

“The process can be tremendously challenging. For fresh foods with short shelf lives, this lengthy process isn’t conducive to preventing illness. For foods with longer shelf lives, the ability to traceback promptly — and trace forward to see where else the products in question have gone — can help remove contaminated food from commerce and control outbreaks.”

The Food and Drug Administration is trying to be more transparent in its food outbreak investigations and it has given the public a window into the process.

 The Food and Drug Administration’s new CORE Investigation table is a weekly outbreak tracking tool for the public. It is managed by the FDA’s CORE Response TeamsConsumers can see the investigations in a variety of stages, meaning that some outbreaks have limited information, and others may be near completion or declared ended.

Public health advisories are issued for outbreak investigations that result in specific, actionable steps for consumers to take to protect themselves.

Outbreak investigations that do not result in specific, actionable steps for consumers may or may not conclusively identify a source or reveal any contributing factors. If a source and/or contributing factors are identified that could inform future prevention, FDA commits to providing a summary of those findings.

Because of all of these contributing factors, Acheson says the best way to prevent these complications is to act quickly.

“In the future, swiftness will continue to be a priority, which can be supported by airtight supplier management practices,” he says

FDA’s Food Traceability List
“One major area of focus recently has been the FDA’s Food Traceability List. A draft of the regulation has just been published, which updates the language — but not the intent — of the original 2011 document. It’s no longer referred to as the ‘High-Risk List,’ but the foods on it are still known for presenting an elevated risk,” Acheson said.

It is important for food and beverage manufacturers to be constantly reviewing the list because it is regularly updated. The full list can be found here.

(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here)


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