Food Safety 2023 in the Rear View Mirror

Dec. 20, 2023
The past year brought food safety challenges and change, maybe most importantly a revamp of the FDA.

Over the course of the year, we have continued to see the microbiological challenges in the food industry. Whether it's E. coli, Salmonella, or Listeria, those problems continue to plague us. The key message is there's no less focus on them than there ever was and our public health officials are all over that.

As we write this, we're in the throes of a fairly significant Salmonella issue related to cantaloupe, which is not the first time, and sadly probably won't be the last. Ongoing recalls and outbreaks associated with microbes will continue, but what has been different in 2023 is this was one of the biggest areas of focus of the year for FDA.

In 2022 we had a significant situation pop up with infant formula. It raised a lot of questions and it led to the commissioner establishing a group through the Reagan-Udall Foundation to explore what should be done. They made some recommendations, and in 2023 there actually were some changes.

It led to some reorganization within the FDA, including a new deputy commissioner of human foods position with a different mandate and a different background. From a regulatory perspective, that is one of the biggest changes in 2023. There was a recognition the FDA needed to bring together all food issues -- whether it's human food or animal food, whether it's policy set in Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition or inspectors from the Office of Regulatory Affair. To pull it all together into one cohesive group.

That is what I see as the charge of Jim Jones, who is the new deputy commissioner. We’re yet to see a lot of impact from that change but that's what we’ll watch for in 2024.

Staying on the regulatory side of food safety, there have been some interesting things happening at the state level. California passed a set of prohibitions against the use of brominated vegetable oil, potassium bromate, propylparaben and red dye No. 3 in foods. The legislation started out with a list of five but titanium dioxide was dropped and the legislature wound up passing four and the governor of California signed the law in October. It will take effect in 2027.

It's interesting to me that California took the lead on this and only then the FDA followed suit and said, “Yes, we’ve been looking at brominated vegetable oil too,” and recommended a ban at the federal level. I think that's backwards, our FDA should be ahead of the states not the states ahead of the FDA.

Another regulatory component is the traceability rule, not a new element even in 2023. A lot of food companies are thinking “We have till 2026, so we don't need to worry about it,” but the wise ones are starting to determine how it's going to impact them. Whether you're a retailer, a distribution center, a grower or a manufacturer, it's going to impact you in one way or another.

The Foreign Supplier Verification Program brought continued focus on imported foods. FDA has focused on what they determine are high-risk foods – spices, seafood and the like -- with plenty of inspections and testing going on at the ports of entry. We're continuing to see companies get into trouble because they don't have a Foreign Supplier Verification Program that meets FDA standards and they're getting warning letters.

Another area that has been a pretty hot topic is allergens, always a concern, always a very low trigger for FDA to take action. We've seen some pretty hot conversations around sesame, which was the ninth allergen to be added to the list. It’s certainly thrown a loop to the baking industry, which has struggled with this in a way that I think many didn't anticipate. Even some companies with good Good Manufacturing Practices are adding it to products at very low levels and stating that on the label, just to be safe. Consumer organizations are upset because some companies have deliberately added sesame to products that didn't have it before and are therefore limiting availability to at least some consumers.

Chemicals continues to be a key topic that is always a challenge, whether it's pesticides, residual drugs or heavy metals. 2023 wasn't the start of a focus on heavy metals but it has been the continuation of that subject. Right now we're dealing with lead toxicity in an increasingly large number of children, which is allegedly linked back to cinnamon and apple sauce. Once again, California is leading the pack because they're beginning to talk about legislation requiring companies to post heavy metal levels in certain products that are targeted toward babies and children.

The good news is the produce industry seems to be doing well, although microbial issues have been a past challenge. We did not see a “Do not eat romaine lettuce” warning in 2023 as we did in past years, and that's a testimony to the great work the produce industry is doing.

Finally, even after Covid, labor challenges have continued to plague manufacturers, who often are using temporary workers. Getting these new workers trained is a challenge that heightens the need for a good food safety culture. In 2023 we've seen more interest in food safety culture -- how can we measure it, how can we assess it, what do we need to work on to improve it. That continues to be a dominant theme in how you manage labor challenges and food safety.

It's been an interesting year and I anticipate 2024 will be equally if not more challenging, but maybe in different ways.

 

The above is from an Acheson Group YouTube video, “Food Industry 2023 In the Rear-View Mirror” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ACnRmqVBunA). Dr. David Acheson, a former FDA associate commissioner for foods, is founder and CEO of The Acheson Group, a consulting firm with a focus on food safety and risk management.