The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which oversees food safety, is adapting to what it describes as a “food revolution”. At a three-day summit last week, involving representatives of companies and regulators at state and international levels, the agency considered broad approaches to tackle the new challenges to food safety presented by e-commerce – a category that includes online grocery sales and platform delivery companies that sell food via apps.
The conference was part of the FDA’s broader unveiling of the “new era of smarter food safety,” its attempt to use new technologies to modernise its regulation of the category. The agency has referred to it as a “wholistic look” at how food safety regulations in the US operate.
In addition to adapting to new business models such as third-party delivery systems, they include using technology to enhance the ability to trace food as it moves along the supply chain, which the agency hopes will improve its ability to respond to contaminated foods. Most records for the food supply chain, the FDA has said, are currently on paper, which slows this process down considerably. The public comments period for the plan is open.
Online ordering of food and groceries has been on the rise for some time, but the coronavirus pandemic kicked it into overdrive.
Companies like Kroger, a large grocery store chain in the US, have dramatically increased their online sales. According to FDA figures, in 2019 consumers spent $62.2bn on online grocery purchases; in 2020, they spent $95.8bn.
The impact of Covid
During the pandemic-related closures, food deliveries – not necessarily included in those “online grocery” sales figures – also grew enormously.
Platform companies such as Uber Eats and Grubhub increased app-based food ordering, with some projections now suggesting that the category will be as large as $192.16bn by 2025.
“I personally don’t see this trend reversing. A new habit has been formed that many are finding convenient,” the FDA’s deputy commissioner for food policy, Frank Yiannas, said.
Covid-19 has had a notable impact on the way both companies and regulators in the US view food safety.
Ashley De Smeth, director of federal affairs for Grubhub, which delivers to about 33m people across more than 4,000 US cities, said the coronavirus had changed the way many people view food delivery from a luxury to a necessity, which was reflected in the safety changes companies have put in place. These included “contactless delivery,” where the driver leaves the food at the door. Safety measures for drivers themselves have included personal protective equipment, De Smeth said.
What keeps regulators awake at night?
Acting FDA commissioner Janet Woodcock said new types of delivery systems for food and the increasingly global nature of the market had provided challenges to food safety. “Americans have come to expect that whatever food they’re getting will be there when they want it and it’ll be safe to eat,” she said.
Across the US, food safety is largely regulated at state and local level. The existing regulations don’t really cover third-party deliveries, according to regulators, who often don’t have access to platform delivery drivers, which can make it difficult to enforce the rules that do exist.
Other problems, such as unlicensed food sellers on apps, also make establishing food safety difficult, and are a big enough issue that regulators say it’s keeping them awake at night.
California, the most highly populated state in the US, has been early to try to bring third-party food delivery companies under standardised food safety guidelines. In 2021, responding to public concerns over food safety, the state legislature passed Assembly Bill 3336, which has requirements for transport and sealing of food delivered through apps or online.
Heather Buonomo, director of environmental health for San Diego County, a wealthy county in Southern California, said the state had non-tampering requirements for third-party delivery of food because of that bill, which she described as one of the first attempts to apply regulations to the e-commerce category. Enforcement of that rule is still “a challenge” and relies on food safety education for the restaurants, Buonomo said.
Vital information missing
There are other things she would like written into the existing regulatory structure as well, such as food-handler training for third-party platforms, clearer temperature controls for food delivery, and delivery zones for how far food can travel and remain safe, she said.
Other states do not have third-party-delivery-specific rules yet. Galen Baxter, district environmental health director for the Fulton County Board of Health in Georgia, for example, reported that the state has no regulations specifically for third-party delivery companies.
Regulators also raised concerns over the availability of information to consumers about the food they order over apps.
Catherine Feeney, head of the Rhode Island Department of Health’s Center for Food Protection, spoke of her concern at the lack of allergen information on many apps, an issue over which regulators currently have little control.
Online sales of pet products have also risen sharply, capturing a large share of the market, although according to Steve Solomon, director of the FDA Center for Veterinary Medicine, pet products do not currently have an overarching “food code” protecting animals from bad products.
The FDA has noted that more retailers may be using third-party deliverers to transport products, and that there has been an increase in speciality pet products sold online. Such products are not covered by the FDA’s Food Code, the countrywide model for food standards that applies to products intended for humans.
– Daniel Mollenkamp PlatformsIntelligence contributing writer
Photo: Nathana Rebouças