At a webinar, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)'s Deputy Commissioner for Food Policy and Response Frank Yiannas said upgrading digital information systems can do the most to protect consumers and strengthen the industry.

The food system is on the cusp of a dual revolution, he said. One side of that revolution is the way that food is made, as plant-based, cell-based, gene-edited, and newly sustainable processes are coming into play. The other side, he told participants in a Wednesday webinar put on by the Alliance for a Stronger FDA, is changing the way regulators and food companies use data to ensure food safety.

Yiannas said that we are living in a new day of data, and with better data, we can further modernize how we do exceptional compliance oversight—that is, using the right data insights and identifying the right attributes of the establishments that are regulated.

Priorities as related to the fiscal year 2022 budget proposal were discussed by Yiannas as well as his colleagues Susan Mayne, director of FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, and Steven Solomon, director for the Center of Veterinary Medicine. The proposed department budget for all functions, including food, drugs, medical devices, and public health initiatives, is $6.5 billion, an increase of $477 million from current fiscal year funding levels. Food programs would get $1.2 billion of this, with food safety making up $82.5 million. 

A large portion would go to funding the New Era of Smarter Food Safety program, a 10-year blueprint to use technology to build upon food safety methods. The budget would allow $44.8 million for the program, about half of which would come out of data modernization and the tech portion of FDA's budget. 

Digital traceability systems, such as blockchain, would receive $6.1 million, according to Yiannas. Better digital traceability data also means that there's more information that machine learning systems can use to make predictions. Yiannas said FDA is not looking to do less regulating or be more hands-off, but an ideal system might be able to show the department where and when specific problems might occur. He said the department has built a pilot system, which is working well. 

The paradigm of how people get food is rapidly changing, said Yiannas, and so food safety inspections need to change with it. For example, during the pandemic, millions of people ordered food from grocery pick-up and delivery services or from manufacturers themselves. Because of this, the world is becoming the grocery store, Yiannas said, and there is a new set of food safety protocols that need to be designed and met.