The food supply in the United States is “as safe as it’s ever been,” Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Robert Califf told Senate appropriators Thursday when questioned about the agency’s lack of action on food safety issues.
“I've spent some time going to sources to verify that this is the case,” he told Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., chair of the Senate’s ag appropriations subcommittee. “And the people who keep the data are assuring me that this is the case. But that doesn't mean we can't do better.”
Baldwin was asking Califf about a recent Politico article that detailed widespread concern with the slow pace of FDA regulatory action on food. Baldwin mentioned specifically FDA’s recent release of a standard of identity for yogurt.
“Many provisions were objected to by the dairy industry,” Baldwin said. “And a stay was eventually put in place. It should not take the agency 40 years to update a rule.”
Califf did not address the yogurt issue, but in response to another enduring concern of Baldwin’s and the dairy industry regarding when products can be identified as “milk,” he said, “the milk-related issues are under consideration as we speak.”
“We're moving along quickly, and it's a priority to get this done,” he added. Consumer feedback shows that most people “generally do know the difference between plant and animal milk,” he said, but are less informed when it comes to nutritional values of various products.
Califf said “there are approximately 280 standards of identity” and the process to address them “is quite cumbersome.”
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The fiscal 2023 budget request for FDA includes a $120 million increase in spending on food safety and other food-related subjects, from about $1.1 billion to $1.23 billion. The Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition would receive a $75.9 million boost from the fiscal 2022 level of $344.9 million — an increase of 22%.
Califf spoke extensively about how FDA needs to be able to take advantage of new technologies to increase its computational capacity.
“Each center at FDA is invested is invested in its own technology, remnants of a time when interoperability was not a consideration, and artificial intelligence seemed like science fiction,” he said. “This balkanization wastes time, drains resources, and creates safety vulnerabilities.”
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