The COVID-19 pandemic will continue to affect food safety trends in 2022, even as businesses and regulators prepare for what lies beyond the pandemic.

According to food safety experts, labor shortages and supply chain issues are at the forefront of what food companies will need to address.

The industry needs to “aggressively manage and address” labor shortages and their effect on the culture of food safety in the workplace, said Frank Yiannas, the Food and Drug Administration’s Deputy Commissioner for Food Policy and Response. In addition, new supplier relationships forced by supply chain disruptions should be monitored.

Labor, turnover and the threat to food safety culture

Yiannas said the loss of labor is creating a need to rapidly hire new employees and move current employees to new roles. Training is as critical as ever, he said.

“In other words, before asking employees to work with food, let’s all make sure that food employees have the knowledge and skills they need to ensure food is produced safely each and every day,” Yiannas said.

Frank Yiannas

Frank Yiannas

The FDA identified food safety culture as a core element when rolling out its New Era of Smarter Food Safety blueprint.

“The New Era blueprint sets goals designed to foster, support and strengthen food safety culture on farms and in food facilities, addressing how employees think about food safety and how they demonstrate a commitment to this goal,” Yiannas said. “In fact, I believe that a strong food safety culture is a prerequisite for an effective food safety management system.”

Trish Wester, the founder of the Association for Food Safety Auditing Professionals, said food companies should consider temporarily changing training procedures to more rapidly bring staff online.

“Steps that may reduce the amount of time and training to onboard key personnel may be needed to address staff shortages,” she said.

Supply chain disruptions forge new relationships

Some food manufacturers and processors have been forced to buy ingredients from different suppliers when sourcing from previous partners became problematic, and that will continue in 2022. It’s essential that companies understand the differences, if any, in the ingredients being purchased.

The FDA has temporarily given food manufacturers the flexibility to make minor formulation changes without reflecting those changes on package labels.

“An important caveat is that any substitutions or omissions can only be made if they do not pose a health or safety issue,” Yiannas said. “We want to support the supply chain and help the food industry meet consumer demand during the pandemic, but not at the expense of food safety.”

Changes involving food allergens, or ingredients that result in significant nutritional differences, are not allowed without labeling updates.

Risk assessment and emerging pathogens in leafy greens

The California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement (LGMA), whose members grow, process, and distribute romaine lettuce and other leafy greens, has a number of new initiatives and areas of focus that will continue to grow in 2022, CEO Tim York said.

While foodborne illness outbreaks have been a recurring issue for the leafy greens industry, late 2021 saw Cyclospora and Listeria outbreaks instead of E. coli, which has been prevalent in recent years. York said the sector would be focusing on preventing outbreaks in the coming year.

Tim York

Tim York

The LGMA has added requirements for assessing farm-level risks, including water and pre-harvest testing, and the FDA’s Produce Safety Rule added risk assessment requirements for water use, York said. On top of that, the use of root cause analysis to determine how pathogens are getting into fields will be a high priority.

“The information learned from this analysis will be extremely valuable in helping to better identify potential risks and prevent future outbreaks,” York said.

The LGMA will also be monitoring recalls traced to greenhouses and other Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) operations, following an outbreak of Salmonella and a recall for possible Listeria contamination from two CEA companies in 2021.

“The LGMA currently does not cover these products, but it’s something we are watching as CEA is clearly not immune to foodborne illness outbreaks, and this will have an impact on consumer confidence for the leafy greens category as a whole,” York said.

FDA plans release of Food Traceability Rule in 2022

Yiannas said his agency anticipates releasing the final Food Traceability Rule in late 2021, after taking feedback from stakeholders last year. The rule will affect companies that manufacture, process, pack, or hold foods on the Food Traceability List.

The rule, mandated by the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), aims to enhance food traceability throughout the global supply chain, making it possible to identify more rapidly where contaminated foods were produced. However, Yiannas said there’s also another benefit.

“Enhanced food system traceability might help anticipate disruptions in the food supply chain and avoid the kind of food waste we saw in the early months of the pandemic,” he said.

Lessons from the pandemic

Although some food safety oversight was curtailed or suspended by the FDA in the early months of the pandemic, particularly for foreign food facilities that exported to the United States, technology stepped in to allow some off-site domestic inspections.

Trish Wester

Trish Wester

Wester said the food industry could see more import alerts and warning letters in 2022 as the FDA fully resumes inspections and follows up with violators. The FDA updated its plan to step up inspections to counter pandemic postponements in November 2021.

The pandemic will continue to present unforeseen challenges to food manufacturers, York said. For example, salad companies face a conundrum.

“While there is certainly a focus on reducing waste and other inputs necessary to sustain the packaged salad industry, there is also a desire among consumers for goods of all kinds that prevent the spread of germs,” York said. “These issues will continue to create challenges for our industry into 2022 and beyond.”

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