Special Food Series Report: Surveillance and Centralization on the Menu 

“Things are going to change dramatically in the years ahead.” ~ Frank Yiannis, FDA Deputy Commissioner for Food Policy and Response

By Pete Kennedy

The International Association for Food Protection (IAFP) held its annual meeting from July 31 to August 3 at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center in Pittsburgh. The IAFP meeting is the largest food safety conference in the world, with over 3000 professionals from government, industry, academia, and nonprofits attending. IAFP’s mission is “to provide food safety professionals worldwide with a forum to exchange information on protecting the food supply.”1

The IAFP meeting is also a window into the future of food safety and food regulation. Food safety professionals have a thankless job, investigating foodborne illness outbreaks involving foods that often have ingredients sourced from multiple countries, thanks to the globalization of the food supply.

Decentralization of food production and distribution and deregulation of locally produced food can address many food safety problems but, given the presence of some of the world’s largest food producers on IAFP’s membership roster, that sensible solution is not on the table. Instead, the future of the conventional food industry looks to be one of further centralization and increased surveillance of every aspect of the food system.

Dramatic Changes Ahead

One of the highlights of the annual meeting is a regulatory update provided by two high-ranking officials, respectively representing the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). At this year’s meeting, the FDA representative was Frank Yiannis, Deputy Commissioner for Food Policy and Response.

In his remarks, Yiannis acknowledged that the number of foodborne illnesses has been flat for two decades. The FDA’s Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA)—landmark food safety legislation governing 80% of the U.S. food supply—has done nothing to change that trend since going into effect in 2011. Nevertheless, he was bullish on the future, telling the audience to imagine a future where all information on food (how it was produced, where it’s available, etc.) is at your fingertips—a future where you can trace food in seconds. He encouraged the attendees to imagine buying food at a store you can trust because you know everything about it. Yiannis stated that we are moving toward an age where everything will have a digital footprint and voice, and where regulators can monitor a food processing plant whenever they want, not just perform an inspection once every five years. Yiannis warned IAFP attendees, “things are going to dramatically change in the years ahead.”2

FDA recently launched what it calls “The New Era of Smarter Food Safety,” a campaign that “represents a new approach to food safety, leveraging technology and other tools to create a safer and more digital, traceable food system.”3 Sometime this fall FDA will be issuing a final rule on food traceability, a rule that could drive small and midsize food producers crazy—or out of business—with its extensive recordkeeping requirements.


One technology that Yiannis favors, having worked with it while he was in private industry, is blockchain, a digital ledger that can be used to trace food from farm to fork. Illustrating this, another presenter at the IAFP meeting spoke about a Chinese blockchain product called GoGo Chicken, manufactured by ZhongAn Technology; according to Chief Technology Officer Xuefeng Li, “All info related to the chicken can be verified in the blockchain.”4 Recorded details include “the chicken’s age and location, how far it walks each day, air pollution, the quality of the water it drinks, when it’s quarantined [and] when it’s slaughtered.”4

Hundreds of Chinese poultry farmers raising organic free-range birds are using the technology to combat fraud from factory farms that are also claiming their birds are free-range. The free-range organic birds are tagged with an anklet “that tracks and reports every aspect of their lives.”4

Another blockchain product, the IBM Food Trust, has over 80 brands using it. Consumers can use a QR code to determine the processor and the farmer of the food they are eating—a globalized virtual version of “know your farmer, know your food.” Blockchain is also being used for beef to determine if the cattle are in fact grassfed, and it is being used to detect food fraud with products like olive oil. Foods that can show farm-to-fork traceability can get a premium price.

There are a number of potential downsides to blockchain. It is expensive and incredibly energy-intensive; as one IAFP speaker conceded, there must be mass participation for blockchain to make sense. Cybersecurity could also be an issue; another conference speaker mentioned that there have been 200 ransomware attacks on food and agriculture, with the government monitoring over 40 groups for ransomware activities. It is unclear how well blockchain protects the confidentiality of proprietary information. Scalability, too, is an issue with blockchain; the required data storage capacity of the technology is huge. Further, blockchain is immutable once data are entered into it and timestamped; poor-quality data can’t be rectified.

In the U.S. food and agriculture industry, while thus far it has been mainly the private sector that has used blockchain, FDA has employed blockchain in a pilot program to improve the traceability of seafood. Industry experts think FDA could use blockchain in connection with its food traceability rule once the agency promulgates the final regulation, a development that could lead to further confusion beyond what the rule itself already promises to create.

Artificial intelligence

Another technology enjoying favor with the food industry and regulators is artificial intelligence (AI), defined at the meeting as “the ability of a digital computer or computer-controlled robots to perform tasks commonly associated with intelligent beings.”5 One presenter at the IAFP meeting spoke of “Industry 5.0,” where humans and robots work together, with robots making the decisions.

In a presentation titled “Virtual Food Safety Monitoring, Auditing, and Artificial Intelligence Applications,” a speaker commented that AI has a big role to play in the new era of food safety.5 According to the speaker, farms can use AI to make decisions regarding everything from seed selection, water content, and soil selection to crop monitoring. In a food processing plant, it can be used to remove defective product through optical sorting and through through an electronic nose (known as an “e-nose”) that would replace the smell and taste functions of human noses in food production settings.

The food industry, speakers noted, can also use AI for selection and analysis of components in food, as well as to identify flavor and provide quality assurance for packaging. It is possible to program AI for warehousing and storage, analysis of delivery routes, and for maintenance and timely repair of equipment. As for sanitation, the future is robots doing the cleaning instead of humans; robots can be made sterile, so the thought is that pathogens would be less likely to crop up in a robot-cleaned plant. Moreover, AI has been used to evaluate workers’ personal hygiene.

Other technologies

Aside from blockchain and AI, speakers at IAFP mentioned a number of other technological tools for food safety. This all adds up to expensive, broad-spectrum, 24/7 surveillance. Consider facial recognition technology, which can be used for purposes ranging from determining an individual’s arrival and departure times at a food processing plant on a particular day to how many people with a red shirt and black pants were in an area of the plant on a specific date. There is also wearable vision technology, with a remote or off-site assessor directing an on-site inspector to potentially problematic areas of the plant. For the on-site inspector, body cameras serve a similar purpose. There are drones used to inspect silos or areas of a roof. And there are temperature sensors that stay with a food product throughout its whole journey from the processing plant to the customer’s home.

The upshot of all this surveillance, monitoring, and tracking is massive data collection—data is the new oil. Moreover, Yiannis and others at the meeting talked about government and industry sharing data. Yiannis spoke of how government and industry have been working together toward global harmonization on food safety—FDA works with Codex Alimentarius toward this end.6 This raises a question regarding the food safety system of tomorrow: Will industry be providing their data to government voluntarily and, if so, what’s in it for them?

The digitization and massive overregulation of the industrial food system doesn’t look to be reversing the deterioration in quality that conventional food has been suffering for many years, nor does it reverse the increasing lack of transparency regarding what is actually in the food. The answer isn’t to increase regulation to the point of further consolidating the food industry—instead, the solution is to grow the local food system. There is no need to spend billions on technological tools to establish transparency and traceability—these are already built into local food. The path to improved nutrition, health, and community is more of being able to look the producer of your food in the eye—and fewer QR codes to see who grew your favorite food 5000 miles away.

1. About IAFP. International Association for Food Protection. https://www.foodprotection.org/about/
2. Yiannis, F. (2022, Aug 1). U.S. Regulatory Update on Food Safety. [Conference session]. IAFP 2022 Annual Meeting, Pittsburgh, PA.
3. FDA. (2020, July). New Era of Smarter Food Safety: FDA’s Blueprint of the Future. [PDF], p.1. https://www.fda.gov/media/139868/download
Note: Accessible link at https://www.fda.gov/food/new-era-smarter-food-safety/new-era-smarter-food-safety-blueprint
4. Peters, A. (2018, January 12). In China, you can track your chicken on–you guessed it–the blockchain. Fast Company. https://www.fastcompany.com/40515999/in-china-you-can-track-your-chicken-on-you-guessed-it-the-blockchain
5. Virtual Food Safety Monitoring, Auditing, and Artificial Intelligence Applications. (2022, Aug. 2). [Conference session]. IAFP 2022 Annual Meeting, Pittsburgh, PA.
6. Food and Agriculture Organization & World Health Organization. (2022). Codex Alimentarius. [Website]. https://www.fao.org/fao-who-codexalimentarius/en/

Notify of