Food safety data sharing still tricky, say experts

There needs to be an incentive for food safety data to be shared between the public and private sectors, according to speakers at the Vienna Food Safety Forum.

The event, organized by UNIDO, the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment of Australia and the Standards and Trade Development Facility (STDF), also raised concerns about data ownership, privacy and quality, as well as trust between stakeholders.

Donald A. Prater, associate commissioner for imported food safety at the US Food and Drug Administration, said the agency was talking about data and information every day.

“Increasingly, we are using predictive analytic tools, artificial intelligence and machine learning to drive our risk-based resource allocation so in those oversight activities such as inspections and sampling, we want to use data and information to guide us. We have constrained resources, we can’t be in every place all the time so we are looking to do regulatory activities that are the most impactful for public health. We want to go places where there is increased risk,” he said.

Value of providing data
Regulators sit on a mountain of data but industry also has quite a bit and there are other sources, said Prater.

“Data quality is a big issue. One challenge in sharing data and information is ensuring confidentially and creating that environment where the fear of punitive action is minimized, that will help us to get better together. We’re looking at data-sharing platforms, leveraging reliable third-party audits and partnerships with international food safety regulators. How we get data and share it is a challenge. We’re looking at techniques like aggregation, de-identification and anonymization to provide levels of confidentiality but still monitor trends and public health outcomes,” he said.

Julie Pierce, director of openness, data and digital at the Food Standards Agency, said a lot has been learned through years of experience in the UK.

Julie Pierce speaking at the Vienna Food Safety Forum

“Now, we have a different mindset. It is much more about having the right information available at the right time to make a decision. It is about predicting the future, we don’t want to be looking backwards as to what has happened. We learned the importance of data governance, data owners, those who need to use or access the data and understanding those roles. We need to improve accuracy of the data, there is a lot out there, some of it is good and some is not. Where it isn’t good we can improve it. Timeliness of data and getting hold of it as close to real-time as possible is important. We need to get better at overcoming some of the trust issues,” she said.

“In discussions with businesses we are finding that having standardization, consistency and knowing what is required is valuable. That is one of the roles we can play to make it easier for businesses to share data with ourselves and others. We have to try to demonstrate where the value is downstream if someone invests this piece of data. We need to show the value that can be pushed back upstream. So, I provide this data and get some value back either to help ensure my next production run is safer, or to improve yields or get a better price. Data needs to be an asset rather than it just being an overhead with the regulator demanding data for a certificate.”

Trust in third parties
Friedrich Sövegjarto, of the Austrian Agency for Health and Food Safety (AGES), asked as there is a high level of food safety in Europe, is data from private sources needed?

“On the other hand, we have reduced resources and new challenges like sustainability and the problem of food fraud. The EU system means inclusion of self-control data and our risk assessors ask about the possibility of getting this private data to do a better risk assessment. They only have data from official controls. We just started these discussions but we face some challenges. The main one is confidentiality and also trust in data,” he said.

“In Austria, the food safety authority gets data from the food business and there are no private assurance systems in between. Whenever we have an outbreak or some food crisis, the food business is responsible but the second most responsible is the authority. If data is taken from private systems, how can we make sure that we don’t lose our independence?”

Dubai’s digital work
Bobby Krishna, from Dubai’s food safety department in the UAE, spoke about how the region had been using digitalization in recent years.

“Most regulators use data from foodborne illness notifications, surveillance and inspections but these data sets are lagging because you get the information after a problem has occurred. If you want to be preventative you need data that tells you something is going to go wrong,” he said.

“Compliance costs can be bearable if it allows companies to export their food elsewhere or show evidence to get more business but that value is not there for digitalization. Everything on a record is a data source, provided it is in a digital format and not trapped on paper. It is anything that can be converted into a useable decision-making or predictive tool.”

Nima Bahramalian, industrial development expert at UNIDO, said it is key to ask what drives the decision of a food company to record, self-report and share data.

“One theory is the perceived benefits and costs of participating in schemes or adopting a new practice. Whether it will bring additional commercial benefits is not always visible. In developing contexts, the return on investment is not immediate in many cases. Would sharing data result in reducing controls and cost to get assurances and certification? Second, is the perceived ease of using the technology. Digitalization can facilitate access to training materials and certification but it is important that technical assistance creates an environment that makes use of technologies easier.”

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