Officials from the FDA, consumer groups and the industry gathered in Washington this week as changing consumer tastes and eating habits impact the space.
More stringent safety policies and further reductions in sugar and salt consumption will be among the top issues facing food in 2019, industry leaders and policy makers said Thursday at the National Food Policy Conference.
Frank Yiannas, deputy commissioner for food policy and response at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, said he is responsible for continuing to implement the Food Safety Modernization Act, coordinating outbreak response and evaluating new and emerging technologies to accelerate prevention. He started his job at the agency around the time of the large romaine outbreak that impacted consumers, growers and retailers around Thanksgiving.
At the time, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb asked retailers, restaurants and other commercial outlets to voluntarily pull all romaine from the market. Yiannas said the Produce Safety Rule put in place as part of FSMA established requirements to keep potential contaminants out of water, but that there will be more rules and guidance in the weeks and months to come.
"Food safety is ultimately about public health," Yiannas told the audience in Washington, D.C. "One foodborne disease is one too many and we need to prevent them, but it is also about consumer trust."
The FDA is moving into a new era for "smarter food safety" where more decisions will be driven by data and traceability can be improved with technology such as blockchain and artificial intelligence, he said.
"All of these can be used to create a more digital, traceable, transparent and safer food system," Yiannas said.
Industry leaders agreed food safety also was a top priority in 2019 as companies work to earn the trust of their consumers.
Alison Bodor, president and CEO of the American Frozen Food Institute, said industry, government and consumers need to share the commitment to food safety. But she also said the frozen industry needs regulations that are practical and cost effective.
"If we don’t have a safe product to sell we don’t have a product to sell at all," she said. "As food producers we are guided by FSMA, but it is not the ceiling on food safety, rather it is the base."
But it is not always easy to implement new rules. Laura MacCleery, policy director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said some key provisions of the FDA's produce rule that were intended to improve water quality have been delayed.
The Food Safety Modernization Act, signed into law in 2011, called for growers to test their irrigation water and take steps to prevent contaminated sources from being used on produce. But the FDA announced in September 2017 that implementation would be delayed until at least 2022, beginning with the largest farms, in order to allow the agency to "consider how we might further reduce the regulatory burden or increase flexibility."
"We are concerned about the talk about changing these to reduce regulatory burden, but we are pleased to hear ... that the FDA has an overlapping agenda for some of these items," MacCleery said.
Earlier this month, Gottlieb announced he was resigning from the agency. As an acting director steps up into the role, industry groups have questioned whether the transition will impact their initiatives.
"We're hopeful that the acting commissioner and his successor will continue the work of Commissioner Gottlieb. We've asked FDA for assurances that it's going to be a continuation of business as usual," MacCleery told Food Dive after the event. "We've received a lot of reassurance in that regard so hopefully it won't be a major disruption."
Speakers at the conference also addressed the role of salt and sugar. With the first meeting of the committee considering updates to the Dietary Guidelines scheduled for later this month, the industry is watching what changes will eventually be made to salt and sugar.
MacCleery said CSPI is "very concerned about salt," and they support sodium reduction in FDA's strategy.
"The guidelines should continue to be driven by science and not undue influence from the food and beverage industry," she said. "We're keeping a close eye on the development of the guidelines to ensure that the guidelines will be consistent with the science."
But it won't just be the new guidelines that shape the food and beverage industry in 2019. As more consumers have turned away from sugar, advocates and governments have pushed for sugary drink taxes. While many people view the taxes as controversial, MacCleery said "the day will come when it is not anymore."
Kim Kessler, assistant commissioner of New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, said sugary drinks are the leading contributor of added sugar to American diets and can be linked to heart disease and obesity.
"It should be urgent as a concern," she said at the conference. "The evidence is really building there so I think it's a matter of time until this is something that becomes more widespread."