The head of the Food and Drug Administration on Tuesday announced an overhaul of the agency’s food safety and nutrition division, vowing that the new structure will better protect consumers and the American food supply.
FDA Commissioner Dr. Robert Calif said he would create a new human foods program led by a deputy commissioner who has authority over the policy, strategy and regulatory activities of the part of the agency that oversees 80% of the foods Americans eat.
“This is one of the most important changes in the history of the Food and Drug Administration,” Calif said in an interview.
The move merges two existing programs of the Food and Drug Administration and some regulatory authorities. Benefiting from a single leader, Kaliff said, “unifies and elevates the program while eliminating redundancy, enabling the agency to oversee human food in a more effective and efficient manner.”
The announcement comes after months of audits by the Food and Drug Administration over contamination at a Michigan plant that led to a nationwide shortage of infant formula. And it follows a scathing report That found that the Food and Drug Administration’s food division suffered from decentralized leadership, indecision, and a culture of “constant disruption” that impeded action to protect public health. For years, the agency has been criticized for its too slow response to outbreaks of products and heavy metals in baby food and the need to reduce sodium in the us diet, among other things.
Calif’s actions prompted mixed opinions from food safety advocates. Some said it was a good start, while others said it didn’t go far enough to dismantle the inherent structural problems.
“I think it does a good job of identifying the underlying problems and addressing them head on,” said Dr. Peter Lowry, president of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which focuses on consumer nutrition, food safety and health.
Mike Taylor, who previously served as the FDA’s deputy commissioner for food and veterinary medicine, said the new deputy does not appear to have full authority over the office responsible for inspections of the company’s plants, lab tests, imports and investigations.
“If that were the case, the FDA’s human food program would remain fragmented and the deputy commissioner would not be empowered to make the necessary change,” Taylor said.
Calef said the deputy commissioner would have authority over the human food budget and priorities. He said that it would be a mistake to create a “monolithic organization” to overcome the aversion to change.
“Just because there has been resistance in the past, that doesn’t mean it won’t work,” Kalev added.
The changes aim to straighten out the complex command structure. The Food and Drug Administration oversees human and veterinary drugs and medical devices, along with much of America’s food supply. The Ministry of Agriculture also supervises some food products.
Frank Yanas, the current FDA deputy commissioner for food policy and response, is leaving his position next month. Susan Main, current director of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, said in a statement that Calif asked her to continue during the transition period. The new deputy, who will report directly to the commissioner, will be appointed by the spring, said Kalev.
The revamped food program will include a separate center focused on nutrition, including foods such as infant formula, as well as an office to coordinate state efforts to identify and prevent foodborne disease outbreaks. The plan also calls for a new advisory panel of experts to influence food safety, nutrition and new food technologies.
Under the new structure, the FDA’s Veterinary Center will not be overseen by a deputy commissioner. Calif said this is because much of the center’s work involves animal medicines and devices, not food. In addition, the animal feed industry worried about becoming “affiliated with human food,” Calef said.
That disappointed Mitzi Baum, president of the nonprofit STOP Foodborne Illness. She said human foods, animal foods, and disease outbreaks are often closely linked and should be part of the same program.
“Any change would be messy. It would be devastating,” Baum said. “Why not make all the changes that need to be made in order to create a more efficient and effective agency?”
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