It was a pleasure to join Maria Velissariou (Mars) and Cronan McNamara (Creme Global) in a Smarter Food Safety TechTalk Podcast hosted by Donald A. Prater & Frank Yiannas (FDA).

The question that we had to answer was simple:

“AI is already being used in many ways to add value in society, whether it be in our smart phone, cars, health management, or digital shopping platforms. But how can it be used to advance food safety?

This panel took place as part of the dialogue that the U.S. FDA is facilitating, to highlight and promote key priority areas in an ambitious digital strategy to help bend the curve of foodborne illness.

Through the New Era of Smarter Food Safety blueprint, announced in July 2020, the agency outlines achievable goals to enhance traceability, improve predictive analytics, respond more rapidly to outbreaks, address new business models, reduce contamination of food, and foster the development of stronger food safety cultures.

One of the core elements of this digital strategy is called Smarter Tools and Approaches for Prevention and Outbreak Response. It includes goals to expand predictive analytics capabilities using AI and machine learning tools. At the Tech-Talk Podcast on Artificial Intelligence, me and my co-panelists were invited to share how do we already apply AI to strengthen predictive capabilities and, in turn, food safety protection for consumers and businesses.

Listen to the podcast here: https://www.fda.gov/media/157007/download

During the 42 minutes of this Podcast, the panel:

  • Shared practical use cases of applying AI in food risk mitigation & prevention.
  • Challenged the current way of thinking about food safety challenges and how technology may help address them.
  • Reinforced the vision of a smarter, more digital and much more interoperable food system.

Opening the conversation, Frank reminded us all how he speaks publicly about AI and food safety during his tenure at the FDA. It is a topic that he is pretty passionate about, as he sees the use of AI as an absolute game-changer, a powerful new tool that could significantly enhance our ability to create a safer food system.

This is why I found particularly interesting his 5 key takeaways.

Number 1: Better food safety begins and ends with better data.

Great tools have been used in the past – inspectional approaches, the tool of training, the tool of testing. But we’re entering the 21st century where we increasingly have the ability to convert large volumes of data into powerful predictive information to tools such as AI.

Better food safety in the 21st century is going to begin with better data.

Number 2: It’s not about AI, it’s about the public health problem.

This is not a debate about the promise of AI. It is about focusing on the tremendous public health challenges that we are trying to solve, one problem at a time. The panel gave concrete examples of specific use cases:

  • Enhancing horizon scanning: not only what we think is coming down the pike, but also things we’re not seeing around the corner.
  • Ensuring that imported seafood is safe, as 94% of all seafood consumed in the United States is imported.
  • The leafy greens, a recurring vehicle of foodborne disease.

We should not focus on the technology per se, but on the important problems that we are trying to solve.

Number 3: AI can be a team sport.

Food safety is a collaborative effort, as we live in a shared food system. But can we democratize big data in a way that the public and private sector share information or private-to-private sector?

Safety is not a competitive issue. We will have more data together, and we will all win together.

Number 4: We need to focus on more than just technology.

AI is not going to replace the subject matter experts. We are always going to need the best and brightest food safety professionals. It is a powerful adjunct to the human capacity and intellect.

To be leveraged in the food safety operations of an organization, it’s going to change the way things currently work. Expect to engage many others than just the IT department.

Number 5: It’s already happening now.

AI in food safety is not science fiction; it is already happening now. It is already being used in food, online shopping platforms, healthcare, and elsewhere.

So, let’s get started now.