This week, in a CNBC interview, US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) commissioner Scott Gottlieb shared that the FDA had hired Frank Yiannas as deputy commissioner for food policy and response. For the last decade, Yiannas has been vice president of food safety for Walmart, where he has been instrumental in developing blockchain technology used by the retail giant to track and trace sources of food contamination.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, an estimated 48 million people become ill due to contaminated food every year. Out of that number, 128,000 people are hospitalized, and 3,000 people die from illnesses related to food contamination.
In the wake of the recent E. coli outbreak connected to romaine lettuce, many people are wondering how US food supply chains can be made safer and how the source of food contamination can be quickly traced back to its origin.
In May of this year, Walmart revealed the results of a blockchain pilot program focused on improving the safety of food supply chains for Chinese pork and US mangos. Yiannas described the pilot's impact at the time: "Using blockchain, we were able to track a product from retail shelf back through every stage of the supply chain, right to the farm gate, in seconds instead of days or weeks."
Walmart didn't stop with a pilot. In September, in a letter signed by Yiannas, Walmart announced it was giving its suppliers of fresh leafy greens a deadline of January 31, 2019, to join the blockchain-powered Walmart Food Traceability Initiative, the retailer's attempt to increase food chain transparency.
No FDA Blockchain Plans Yet
By hiring Yiannas, the FDA may be looking to expand on his success in the blockchain space and help the FDA determine how the technology can be best utilized to track and trace the sources of food contamination.
FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, in announcing the hiring, specifically mentioned Yiannas' use of blockchain tech at Walmart, stating: "Mr. Yiannas is a globally acknowledged pioneer in using blockchain technology to strengthen food traceability capabilities and enable greater food system transparency."
In a conversation with a representative from the FDA, the regulatory body told ETHNews that while it is not actively using blockchain technology, it is looking into how to utilize it, and how it could be helpful during investigations involving food contamination. It says that in the wake of a June E. coli outbreak in Yuma it found at least 75 percent of records were either on typed paper or handwritten. Such documentation takes much longer to process and share than digitized records. Moreover, they may even get lost or be modified as they move along the supply chain. The FDA believes this is something that blockchain technology could help to solve.
Although the FDA does not have any immediate plans to implement blockchain technology, Yiannas' hiring increases the chances that the regulatory group might soon play in the blockchain sandbox.