A diverse coalition of agriculture, food industry and consumer groups concerned that Food and Drug Administration is giving short shrift to food safety issues is asking FDA Commissioner Robert Califf to create a position that would have authority over food programs.

In a letter to Califf Monday, the groups said there needs to be a deputy commissioner for foods, who would have “direct line authority” over the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, the Center for Veterinary Medicine, and food-related components of the Office of Regulatory Affairs. 

Citing the lack of “a full-time, fully empowered expert leader of all the aspects of the food program at the FDA,” Consumer Reports’ Director of Food Policy Brian Ronholm said Monday that what’s needed is a “food czar."

“We want to set up a structure that properly leverages the passion and expertise of FDA employees that we know is there,” he said.

The agency recently was the subject of a widely publicized investigative piece in Politico that concluded that food regulation isn't a high priority for the agency and said there was "an open power struggle" between CFSAN's director, Susan Mayne, and FDA’s deputy commissioner for food policy, Frank Yiannas, that is rooted in a reorganization undertaken during the Trump administration.

“We are troubled by the recent Politico reporting of serious problems in the FDA food program’s organizational structure, governance, and performance,” the letter says. “Many throughout the consumer community and food industry have observed such problems and are concerned about their impact on the well-being of both consumers and industry.”

The letter asks for a meeting with Califf and seeks to understand how money allocated to the agency has been spent. 

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“We agree that the FDA’s food program may need significantly increased funding to fulfill its mission,” it says. “Congress has provided considerable funding for FDA food programs” since 2015, especially to implement the 2011 Food Safety Modernization Act, which includes requirements for testing of water used to grow fruits and vegetables. Yet FDA has not been able to meet deadlines to implement the law.

The agency also has been criticized for moving too slowly to review and approve feed additives that could reduce greenhouse gas emissions from dairy and beef cattle.

“A transparent accounting of FDA expenditures since that time, within the food arena, would help us to assist the agency bolster its funding,” the groups say.

Jennifer McEntire, chief food safety and regulatory officer at the International Fresh Produce Association, said the groups want to try and determine where “opportunities for efficiency” might exist.

She added that “personally, I would encourage the FDA to look at partnerships and to leverage outside relationships to make the most of the resources that they have, because everyone's resources are going to be limited. But we can do more together if we're collaborative and transparent.”

In an address to the Alliance for a Stronger FDA on April 12, Mayne defended CFSAN, saying, “I see a program that has gotten more done in the past seven years than probably any time in its history without having any significant increase in size and despite being under a deregulatory administration for four of those years and an ongoing global pandemic."

Ronholm called the coalition of groups that signed on to the letter “unprecedented,” noting that “typically, many of the organizations on this letter may not agree on a number of issues. We do, however, agree that there are serious problems within FDA’s food program as it relates to organizational structure, governance and performance.”

Among the groups on the letter are the Center for Food Safety, Center for Biological Diversity, Natural Resources Defense Council and Environmental Working Group, as well as the Consumer Brands Association, Corn Refiners Association, American Bakers Association, American Frozen Food Institute, Western Growers, and the Association of Food and Drug Officials.

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